Arts Council England help save The Portrait of Omai for the nation

From: Arts Council England
Published: Tue Apr 25 2023

The National Portrait Gallery has successfully acquired The Portrait of Omai by Sir Joshua Reynolds in a joint deal with the Getty Museum in LA, meaning that a hugely significant work of art has been saved for the UK public to enjoy. The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, which is supported by the Arts Council, helped keep this historic portrait in the UK by recommending that the Secretary of State delay granting an export licence for the painting, giving the Gallery time to raise the funds to buy it.

The Reviewing Committee agreed Omai is one of the great iconic works of the 18th century. It is the image of Mai (or ‘Omai' as he was called in Britain), who was regarded as a celebrity and became the subject of several written accounts and images, among them being this Reynolds portrait. Mai arrived in London from his home in Polynesia in July 1774, aboard HMS Adventured, which formed part of Captain James Cook's second voyage.

The extensive interest in the story behind the painting has been a prime example of how audiences want to see works of art that represent the full breadth of the country's artistic and social history in our museums and galleries, and of changing trends in the types of items that institutions want in their collections. Through the years, the Arts Council's cultural property schemes have helped to make that possible, saving world class works of art for the nation, enriching the collections of museums throughout the UK, ensuring that our country's cultural institutions represent and engage a broad range of people.

On the advice of the Reviewing Committee, several other items are currently subject to an export deferral by the Secretary of State, giving institutions the opportunity to raise money, buy the item and keep it in the UK for the public to enjoy. The diversity of these items showcases that stories and artefacts which represent diverse histories are more sought after than ever before. They include:

  • The pre-Raphaelite painting by Rebecca Solomon entitled A Young Teacher is in its second deferral period, having been deemed a national treasure by the Committee for its “bold and ambitious meditation on issues of gender, race, intimacy and education.”
  • Philip de Laszlo's painting Risaldar Jagat Singh and Risaldar Man Singh was also considered a national treasure by the Committee as it “raises more general questions of personal and externally perceived ‘British identity”.

To see more on these pieces, and other items that are currently under temporary export deferral, visit the Reviewing Committee webpage.

Sir Nicholas Serota, Chair of Arts Council England said:

“Arts Council is proud to have supported the recommendation of the Reviewing Committee that this outstanding work of art should continue to be available to the public in the UK. The collaboration between the National Portrait Gallery and the Getty Foundation will mean that it will be seen in an international context, while also ensuring that we diversify the national collection and open opportunities for research and learning about our national history and culture.”

Reviewing Committee

The committee advises DCMS whether a cultural object intended for export is a national treasure.

Photo by Ancient Worlds at Manchester Museum. Image © Manchester Museum
Company: Arts Council England

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