The Independent

How the fight to retain a vital piece of Black British history hangs in the balance

David Lister on The National Gallery’s bid to raise £50m for the masterpiec­e ‘Portrait of Omai’ by Sir Joshua Reynolds


A painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery is in danger of being sold abroad. It would be a national tragedy. The Portrait of Omai (c1776) depicts Mai, the first Polynesian to visit Britain. Mai, or Omai or Omiah (all three

names have been used over the centuries) gazes out of the painting with supreme confidence. He is Black, turbaned, barefoot, and dressed in flowing robes with tattoos on his hands, with the Arcadian landscape endowing an idealised romanticis­m to an already noble-looking subject. He may not be how some imagine an eminent member of Georgian high society would look. Yet that is precisely what this handsome and intriguing young man was.

It is, to put it mildly, a striking portrait. The National Portrait Gallery is desperatel­y trying to raise the money to keep it in the UK. But the deadline for the gallery to stump up the cash of £50m came to an end on Friday – and so far they have only raised half the amount. Although there are suggestion­s an extension to the temporary export bar could be offered by the government.

The majestic painting – the first major portrait of a Black person – is owned by John Magnier. The billionair­e businessma­n and Ireland’s leading thoroughbr­ed stud owner is a huge figure in racing circles and is married to Susan O’Brien, a collector of art and the daughter of the racehorse trainer Vincent O’Brien. Magnier once owned a substantia­l stake in Manchester United and was friends with Sir Alex Ferguson, a friendship that ended in a legal dispute over a £200m racehorse.

He is said to be considerin­g selling the painting on the internatio­nal art market. It’s a painting that, for both art lovers and students of the history of race in Britain, is as much a part of this nation’s heritage as, well, Manchester United.

Portrait of Omai was bought by Magnier for £10.5m in 2001; it’s still the highest amount paid for a Reynolds portrait at auction. For 200 years it hung in Castle Howard in Yorkshire – the place that became Brideshead in the TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. The UK government last year blocked the painting from being sold abroad so that a fundraisin­g initiative could take place. The National Portrait Gallery is trying every avenue to stop it from leaving the UK by buying it itself; it has also considered a partnershi­p with the Getty Museum in LA to share the portrait – but at present, nothing is confirmed.

It is not just that Reynolds painted one of the first major portraits of a Black gentleman, it also conferred on him status and placed him among the movers and shakers of the Georgian age

It will not be the first time Magnier has attempted to sell the painting. He tried in 2002 when the Tate and its director Nicholas Serota found someone willing to buy the painting and loan it to the Tate. However, Magnier and Serota fell out on how and when it would be displayed – and the deal was called off.

The work was painted by Reynolds in the 1770s and exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1776. It is one of the very few 18thcentur­y portraits of a Black nobleman, a work important not just for its artistic quality but also for what it tells us of the history of race in Britain, and particular­ly in Georgian society. That Black people could be major figures in society.

To understand the importance of this painting and the importance of its possible fate, it’s vital to understand the artist, his subject, and the precarious and often arbitrary way decisions are made on whether to keep art treasures in the UK.

Much, rightly, has been made in the news in recent weeks of the fact that this is the first major portrait of a Black person, and one whose place in English social history has arguably not had the fame it deserved. But also intrinsic to the painting’s value and need to remain in the UK is the man who painted him. The English painter Reynolds (1723-1792) occupies a crucial place in art history. A founder of the Royal Academy in London, he

studied art in Italy, became a celebrated portrait painter, and was commission­ed to paint many of the best-known members of Georgian society, including royalty. Portrait painting in England was flowering around this time, as it became a way for the elite of society to show off their status, achievemen­t and wealth.

Artistical­ly, Reynolds in some ways was influenced by the greatest portrait painter of all time, Rembrandt. In some of his self-portraits, he even dressed and posed like the Old Master. Reynolds painted King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte, endowing his subjects with grace and dignity. He used a similar grand style – or “grand manner” as it is also known, that would idealise the subject and iron out any imperfecti­ons – to depict the cream of Georgian society, from the statesman and philosophe­r Edmund Burke, and the writer and creator of the dictionary Dr Samuel Johnson, to the actor David Garrick.

Unsurprisi­ngly, his flawless style of painting was popular with its subjects. To be painted by Reynolds was, in itself, a statement. He or she was de facto a member of the elite simply by sitting for Reynolds. And that is the other reason why this painting of Omai is so important. It is not just that Reynolds painted one of the first major portraits of a Black gentleman, it also conferred on him status and placed him automatica­lly among the movers and shakers of the Georgian age. As some eminent historians wrote in a letter to the Financial Times last year, the painting and the subject’s story could help Britain “to examine our past and understand who we are as a nation”.

Omai, whose real name was actually Mai, was an accomplish­ed and educated member of the Polynesian middle class, who came to England from the South Pacific on one of Captain Cook’s

ships in 1774. Though he stayed in England just two years, he rapidly became a much sought-after member of Georgian society, meeting the King, Dr Johnson and many other luminaries including the novelist Fanny Burney, who wrote that he was “lively and intelligen­t and seems so open and frankheart­ed”.

While the historian David Olusoga has written that because of Britain’s role in the slave trade, “Black Georgians were everywhere” in London, with 15,000 estimated to be living in the capital in 1772, most worked as servants, coachmen and pageboys. Indeed, Reynolds himself had a Black servant. But to glide so effortless­ly through the higher echelons of society as Mai did was rare.

Sponsored by the Earl of Sandwich, Mai joined the aristocrac­y’s shooting parties, went to performanc­es at Drury Lane and Sadler’s Wells, and attended the state opening of parliament. It was not just Mai’s personalit­y that won him such powerful friends. Britain at the time was conscious of its trade and territoria­l interests in the South Pacific and the need to have diplomatic channels. They were hoping Mai could become part of the diplomatic effort to foster trade links with the South Pacific islands.

Mai’s time in London was relatively brief. He returned to the South Pacific on another of Cook’s expedition­s in 1776 and died there in 1779.

Intrinsica­lly linked to Mai, Reynolds and Magnier in this saga is the system for trying to keep national treasures in the UK. The government can and does put temporary export bars on important works of British art. Not everyone, or even every culture secretary, is in favour of automatica­lly keeping great British artworks in Britain. When the late Lord Gowrie was arts minister, he told me over tea in the House of Lords that he took a pragmatic view of this. He would, he said, have no qualms about selling Turners to foreign countries as Britain had plenty of Turners, and the money could be used to buy works by artists who were under-represente­d here. It was a position he later repeated publicly.

It sounds extreme, but the current arts and heritage minister Lord Parkinson, is clearly mulling over something similar. He recently told The Art Newspaper he was considerin­g a reform of the export licensing system for major artworks, to offer potential benefits to foreign museums around the world.

He said it was relevant to consider whether an artwork might “end up in someone’s yacht or dacha – or go to a museum where people from all over the world can enjoy it”.

In other words, provided a great work of art ends up on public view, it may not matter too much which country’s public is viewing it.

“The world is much more connected than it was 70 years ago,” Lord Parkinson said. At present, export licences are granted or refused without any considerat­ion of whether the object will go to a private or public collection overseas.

Under the present system, outlined in The Art Newspaper and unchanged since 1952, works of art and objects of cultural interest for which an export licence is being sought must have been in the country for more than 50 years and must meet three criteria before the licence can be deferred to allow a UK buyer to match the price.

At present, export licences are granted or refused without any considerat­ion of whether the object will go to a private or public collection overseas

This is an exceptiona­l case. At a time like this, with the cost of living crisis, for a public institutio­n to be raising £50m is a very tall order

The item must be closely connected with our history and national life; be of outstandin­g aesthetic importance; and be of outstandin­g significan­ce for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history.

In general, most items that have a temporary government export ban, around two-thirds, do not remain in the UK. In the last year, 15 works of art had export licenses put on ice. Only three were bought by UK museums. Major items that left the UK in 2021 to 2022 included Paul Cézanne’s Ferme Normande, valued at £10m, Nicolas Poussin’s Confirmati­on, valued at £19m, and Bernardo Bellotto’s View of Verona with the Ponte delle Navi , valued at £11m.

They are indeed major items, but none of them are painted by a British artist, and none of them have anything to say about the history of race in Britain. Without doubt, Reynolds’s Portrait of Omai stands apart, not just in its subject matter – but for the UK’s cultural heritage.

So how do we resolve this important dilemma? Do we take the Gowrie/Parkinson view that it is no great crime to allow works of art to go abroad if they end up in a museum or art gallery, rather than a private house? Or do we recognise not just the emotional need to keep important national works of art as the

property of the nation, but also the need to keep them here because of what they tell us about our history?

Certainly, other countries seem to do it better. In Italy, a culturally significan­t artwork can be permanentl­y blocked from leaving the country by the Italian government, which can also decree that it only be sold to a national institutio­n.

The French government is robust in blocking the departure of major works, and gives lavish tax breaks to donors who help keep a work in the country. Earlier this year, the luxury goods company LVMH gave €43m (£38m) to acquire Gustave Caillebott­e’s impression­ist painting Boating Party to the Musée d’Orsay, and received a tax break of 90 per cent of the purchase price.

I would suggest there is another possible resolution. The UK government could claim to be indirectly helping to raise money by giving grants to bodies such as the National Heritage Memorial Fund, which in turn decides whether to help the institutio­ns trying to keep great artefacts in the UK. But surely, the government could be more directly involved, and simply donate the cash in exceptiona­l moments like this.

I put this to Jenny Waldman, director of the Art Fund. “It would be wonderful,” she said. “This is an exceptiona­l case. And, at a time like this, with the cost of living crisis, for a public institutio­n to be raising £50m is a very tall order.”

So, why can the government itself not step in and find the money to keep this masterpiec­e in Britain? In other words, as half the £50m has been raised, the government could simply match that sum. In terms of overall public expenditur­e, £25m is not exactly an enormous sum. After all, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, Nicholas Cullinan, describes the painting as “amongst the most important acquisitio­ns we, as a nation, could ever make, and will be remembered for generation­s to come”.

The government may well not want to set a precedent with such a private/public partnershi­p. But Portrait of Omai does set a precedent. It is part of our nation’s story.

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 ?? (PA) ?? The artwork depicts the first Po l ynesian visitor to the UK
(PA) The artwork depicts the first Po l ynesian visitor to the UK
 ?? (Getty/PA) ?? John Magnier in 2012 ( l eft), and Sir David Attenborou­gh at a photocall outside Tate Britain to launch a 2003 appeal to save ‘Portrait of Omai’
(Getty/PA) John Magnier in 2012 ( l eft), and Sir David Attenborou­gh at a photocall outside Tate Britain to launch a 2003 appeal to save ‘Portrait of Omai’
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