Sir Joshua Reynolds’s ‘Portrait of Omai’

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Throughout the eighteenth century, countless Britons travelled the world, taking with them the English language. Their journeys sometimes ended in power-grabs and conflicts. But they also enhanced the meeting of global cultures and the sharing of global knowledge.

Many visitors in return came to Britain. One Polynesian, named Omai (or Mai), caused a great stir of excitement. He arrived in 1774, on one of the ships from Captain Cook’s second voyage of discovery in the Pacific. Omai met luminaries such as King George III, Dr Samuel ‘Dictionary’ Johnson and the novelist Fanny Burney. All who met him could observe differences of race, language, culture and clothing – as well as their shared humanity.

Joshua Reynolds’s majestic painting of Omai testifies to the positive side of globalism. He is shown in exotic white robes and bare feet, on a strange shore. He stands calmly, with an open hand and frank gaze. (Omai’s friends agreed that it was a good likeness.)

This Polynesian visitor was a cultural ambassador, whose message is as relevant today as it was then. The Director of the National Portrait Gallery confirms that gaining this portrait for the nation would be “amongst the most important acquisitions we, as a nation, could ever make”.

We urge the British Government to end the suspense and to take immediate steps to halt the threatened export of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s unique oil-on-canvas Portrait of Omai (completed in 1776). Its rightful home is in the National Portrait Gallery, which seeks to save it for the nation. If the campaign succeeds, the painting will be sent on tour around Britain; and it may also, at some future date, be loaned for exhibition in Tahiti. Omai’s Portrait will thus continue the process of mutual cultural exploration that the real man himself undertook. Would Omai, Captain Cook, Joshua Reynolds, George III, Dr Johnson, and Fanny Burney have approved? They certainly would. They valued shared global knowledge; and so must we.

If you would like to help save the portrait of Omai, please go to the Art Fund website.

David Adshead, Director of The Georgian Group, Professor Brycchan Carey, President of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (BSECS), and Professor Penelope J. Corfield, President of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ISECS-SIEDS) have signed this open letter to the Rt. Hon. Lucy Frazer, M.P., Minister for Culture, Media, and Sport.

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