National Portrait Gallery fundraises to keep £50 million Reynolds masterpiece in the UK

The National Portrait Gallery is fighting to keep a powerful masterpiece by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) in this country. In March 2022, the government placed a temporary export bar to stop the privately-owned painting from moving abroad, but it is due to be lifted.

I sincerely hope that a UK buyer comes forward to save this iconic painting for the nation,” said Arts Minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay. The gallery has so far raised about half of the £50 million needed to purchase the piece.

Measuring 7ft-high, ‘Portrait of Omai’ is a striking painting of a young man named Mai (c.1753-c.1780) who was the second Polynesian to visit Europe. It captures the complex cultural encounter that occurred in the 18th century, combining a highly romanticised vision of the British Empire with the dignity of Mai’s strength and beauty.

Born in the Polynesia Society Islands, Mai was the son of a mid-ranking courtier. He escaped during the conflict with neighbouring Bora Bora to nearby Tahiti, where he was wounded by a British canon. Surprisingly this did not deter him from wanting to travel to Europe, and he soon began a voyage to Britain on the HMS Adventure with Captain James Cook (1728-1779).

In 1774, he arrived in London where he became greatly admired in high society, meeting King George III (1738-1820) at Kew Palace and regularly dining at the Royal Society. Before he returned to Polynesia (without any of the arms and army that he had hoped to raise), Reynolds invited Mai to pose without a commission. Reynolds, one of the leading artists of the time, kept the life-size portrait in his studio until his own death in 1792.

The acquisition of this magnificent painting,” said Nicholas Cullinan, the director of NPG, “offers us a unique opportunity to share one of the most important, influential portraits in the history of British art with future generations.

In 2022, a temporary export bar was issued to allow time for a UK gallery or institution to acquire the painting since it met all three of the Waverley Criteria. Displaying the painting at the National Portrait Gallery would also help to importantly redress the lack of people of colour represented in the collection.

Almost £25 million raised has been raised thanks to the generosity of over 1,500 individuals and foundations. The National Heritage Memorial Fund pledged £10 million to help save the national treasure, and Art Fund gave the largest grant in its history of £2.5 million.

A spokesperson for Art Fund admitted that “there remains a very ambitious [funding] challenge, but this is a unique chance to bring a painting of outstanding international significance into public ownership and share it across the UK.”

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