Temporary Export Bar For 'Outstanding' Reynolds' Portrait Of Omai
Minister of State for the Arts, Tessa Blackstone, has placed a temporary bar on the export of a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds of Omai (c. 1775-6). This will provide a last chance to raise the money to keep the portrait in the United Kingdom.
The Minister's ruling follows a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art that the export decision be deferred. This reflects the inextricable connection of the sitter's personal history with the great voyages of exploration and discovery in Australasia during the later eighteenth century, the outstanding importance of the portrait in relation to the study of Reynolds' art and to British eighteenth-century cultural studies in general, and the fact that it is by itself one of Reynolds' most important and visually compelling works.
The Committee have awarded a starred rating to this item, meaning that every possible effort should be made to raise funds to retain it in the country. The deferral will enable purchase offers to be made at the following agreed fair market price:
A portrait of Omai by Sir Joshua Reynolds, deferred at the recommended price of £12,500,000 (including VAT) until after 17 March 2003. The deferral period could be extended until after 17 September 2003 if there is a serious intention to raise funds with a view to making an offer to purchase.
Anyone interested in making an offer to purchase the portrait should contact the owner's agent through:
The Secretary, The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 2-4 Cockspur Street London, SW1Y 5DH
NOTES TO EDITORS
Pictures of this item can be downloaded free of charge from our site on PA Picselect. Please go to the DCMS folder situated within the Arts section of Picselect either at http://www.papicselect.com/ or through the PA bulletin board.
The portrait is in oil on canvas and measures 236.2 x 144.8 cm.
Omai was born around 1751 on the island of Ulaietea (now Raiatea). When he was aged about eleven, he moved with his family to Tahiti. There he became a priest to the Queen of Tahiti. The following year James Cook arrived in Tahiti on board the Endeavour, together with the eminent botanists Sir Joseph Banks and Dr Solander. It was at this time that they met Omai for the first time. In 1773 Cook again visited Tahiti and Huaheine, where he met Omai, who this time accompanied him back to England. During the voyage Omai served as an able seaman, under the name Tetuby Homy. 'Omai', the name by which became known in England, was apparently the result of a misunderstanding, since 'O Mai' technically meant 'from the family of Mai'.
Omai was the first Polynesian to be brought to Europe. He remained in England from July 1774 until June 1776. During that time he lived under the guardianship of Solander and Banks, in whose house he initially lodged. Immediately upon his arrival he had an audience with the King and Queen at Kew Palace; he regularly went to balls, and operas, and attended the State Opening of Parliament. Omai travelled beyond the capital, to Hertfordshire, Yorkshire, the Isle of Wight and the University of Cambridge. During this time he indulged in various native British pastimes, including shooting, skating, and picnicking. He was also a frequent guest at Royal Society dinners, where his name was recorded as 'Mr Omai', an indication that he was received as a gentleman in his own right.
In June 1776, Omai set sail back for the Pacific with Cook on board the Resolution. On his arrival home in August 1777, Omai settled on Huaheine, where Cook built him a house. In 1789 Captain Bligh arrived in Tahiti on board the Bounty. He was told that Omai had died a couple of years after Cook's departure.
In Reynolds's portrait Omai wears flowing white robes, evidently based upon robes which he would have worn on his native island (possibly in his capacity as a priest), and in which he also dressed on occasion in London. At the same time, Reynolds made no attempt to disguise the prominent tattoos on Omai's hands and arms, which remain in full view 'for the sake of likeness'. The inherent ambiguity in the portrait was quite deliberate: Reynolds ennobled the figure of Omai through the language of Western art, while he also drew attention to the features which marked him out from Western society.
The intention, in bringing Omai to England, was vaunted as scientific, his introduction to fashionable society by the botanist Joseph Banks a means of evaluating his responses to 'civilized' Western virtues. Omai surpassed all expectations, notably among the literary elite, and with the Royal Family, whom he met on several occasions. To Fanny Burney Omai was 'a perfectly rational and intelligent man, with an understanding far superior to the common race of us cultivated gentry'.
Sir Joshua Reynolds was one of the leading artists in eighteenth-century Europe, by virtue of his skill as a portrait painter, his Presidency of the Royal Academy of Arts, and his authorship of the fifteen Discourses on Art. Reynolds was almost certainly introduced to Omai by Joseph Banks, who was among his circle of close friends. Given his celebrity status it was natural that Reynolds should wish to paint Omai's portrait. The portrait was exhibited by Reynolds at the Royal Academy in the spring of 1776. With this portrait, Reynolds confirmed the iconic status of Omai in British contemporary society.
Reynolds retained the portrait for show in the picture gallery attached to his house in Leicester Square. After his death, it was purchased by Frederick, 5th Earl of Carlisle, a close friend of Reynolds and one of his most influential patrons. Lord Carlisle installed the painting at his ancestral seat, Castle Howard, in 1796. It has remained there until very recently.
Unlike so many of Reynolds's portraits, which have suffered as a result of the artist's experimentation with bitumen, and the inept attention of subsequent restorers, Omai remains in excellent condition, its original colour and all its original glazes intact. It technically exemplifies Reynolds at his very best and represents one of the great masterpieces of 18th century British painting.
The recommended price at which the application to export the portrait is deferred is £12,500,000.
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