Ministers urge the preservation of culturally important Joshua Reynolds painting in Britain

Ministers are urged to extend an export ban on Joshua Reynolds’ “Portrait of Omai”, starring one of the UK’s first non-white celebrities, as a race begins to raise £50m for the culturally sensitive work in Groot to keep Britain.

Lord Ed Vaizey, former Tory culture minister, and leading historians have written to the Financial Times asking ministers to spend more time on fundraising to avoid the portrait being “lost forever to Britain”.

The 18th-century portrait of the Pacific Islander is believed to belong to Irish billionaire horse rancher John Magnier, according to officials briefed on the matter, and is currently being stored in the UK. Magnier’s office declined requests for comment.

Mai, his real name, traveled with Captain Cook on HMS Adventure to London in 1774 and became an instant celebrity, meeting King George III, attending the state opening of parliament and touring the country.

The group of letter writers claims the work “is a signal work in the history of colonialism, scientific exploration and of the Pacific Ocean” and says it is of “unique historical and cultural importance”.

Allies of Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said she will look “sympathetic” to calls for an extension of a temporary export ban beyond its July 10 expiration date, with a decision expected this week.

The government imposed a temporary export ban on the portrait in March, saying there was a risk of it leaving the UK, but the £50 million worth needed to buy the work is beyond the reach of British galleries.

Dorries’ colleagues said the government had not been asked for a financial contribution, but that the minister wanted to give the fundraisers time to raise the money they needed.

The original export ban was introduced in March to give a UK gallery or institution time to acquire the painting. Ministers said it could be extended until March 2023 if there was “a serious” fundraising effort.

Arts Minister Lord Stephen Parkinson said at the time: “This beautiful painting is impressive for its scale, its attention to detail and the valuable insights it offers into the society in which Reynolds painted it.”

In their letter to the FT, experts from universities including Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard joined Vaizey and historian and broadcaster David Olusoga to say the work “captures a historic meeting between the British and non-European worlds”.

Calling on the government to approve a fundraising campaign, they added: “Mai’s story is now more interesting than ever as we seek to examine our past and understand who we are as a nation”.

Reynolds’ life-size painting, which shows Omai in flowing white Tahitian clothing in a classical pose, is recognized as a masterpiece of 18th-century portraiture, but also marks a historic cultural encounter between Western society and one of the first visitors from Polynesia.

Reynolds exhibited the painting at the Royal Academy in 1776, but then kept it close to him in his studio. It later passed into the family of the Earl of Carlisle before being sold at Sotheby’s in 2001 for £10.3 million.

The painting is independently valued today at £50 million – the collective highest value for an export ban. Picasso’s “Child with a Dove” was also valued at £50 million in 2012.

“Omai” hasn’t been seen in public in the UK for nearly 20 years, after it was shown in a 2005 exhibition of Reynolds’ paintings at Tate Britain.

Lucy Ward, an author coordinating the fundraising campaign, said the work was exceptional as a work of art, but also provided insight “into the way a non-white visitor and his culture were perceived in Georgian Britain”.

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