International plan to keep Reynolds masterpiece in Britain shelved

A groundbreaking proposal by two leading UK and US museums to band together to stop a culturally important artwork from leaving Britain permanently has been shelved after being rejected by a government-backed funding body.

The National Portrait Gallery considered jointly acquiring Joshua Reynolds’ 1776 masterpiece, the “Portrait of Omai” — a life-size painting of a young Polynesian islander who sailed to Britain on one of Captain Cook’s ships — with the J Paul Getty Museum in California.

The institutions would have shared the rights to display the portrait, which is valued at £50mn, between London and Los Angeles.

The campaign to keep the painting on British soil has become a cause célèbre. It was described by eminent historians in a letter to the Financial Times this year as “perhaps the greatest work of Britain’s greatest portraitist and the first ever grand portrait of a non-white subject”.

The painting, bought at auction by the Irish racehorse owner John Magnier for £10.3mn in 2001, was barred from export from the UK until March 10 after the owner applied to sell it.

The artwork could be acquired by the Getty Museum or another overseas buyer if the NPG fails to raise £50mn by then. The UK museum has about half the amount, including a provisional £10mn offer from the government-funded National Heritage Memorial Fund, and £2.5mn from the Art Fund, a national art charity.

Nicholas Cullinan, director of the NPG, suggested to the memorial fund that it could back a jointly funded acquisition with the Getty, ensuring success in acquiring the portrait. But trustees of the fund, set up in 1980 to save outstanding heritage at risk of loss, preferred to support a solo effort by the NPG, rather than letting the painting go to the US for several months a year.

The NPG is now racing to raise the remaining £25mn itself by March. The painting is at the museum in London on private display to potential donors to the cause, with the institution hoping that it can be the centrepiece of its reopening in June, following a £35.5mn, three-year redevelopment.

The rejection of the NPG and Getty joint proposal may be controversial because the government is considering licensing reforms to permit museums overseas to acquire more major British artworks, rather than taxpayer money being spent to stop them all from leaving the UK.

The government has backed keeping “Portrait of Omai” in Britain. But Lord Stephen Parkinson, arts and heritage minister, said this week in an interview with The Art Newspaper that it mattered whether works would “end up in someone’s yacht or dacha, or go to a museum where people from all over the world can enjoy it,” when deciding on export licences.

Reynolds painted Mai, his Polynesian name, after the Pacific islander voyaged to Britain in 1774 and was presented to King George III on his arrival. Mai remained in the UK for two years before he returned, learning some English and meeting literary figures and artists.

The memorial fund told the FT that the NPG suggested a joint purchase with the Getty in which the portrait would be shared and displayed in London and Los Angeles as one of several options. “This would be a low priority for NHMF funding given that the painting wouldn’t be fully accessible to a UK audience,” it added.

The NPG said that it discussed a potential joint purchase “to ensure every option to save the portrait for the nation and keep it in public ownership was explored”. The Getty said it could not comment on potential acquisitions, but the UK museum’s statement was correct.

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