The first time I saw Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of Omai, I was speechless. It was 30 years ago, when the painting hung in Castle Howard, the home of the Earls of Carlisle, who had owned it since 1796. I found it in a dark hallway in a side room and it instantly affected me: a full-length figure, 90 in the portrait of a man dressed in a turban and flowing robes, it was an extraordinary explosion of creams and whites.
The man’s pose is operatic. His right hand is outstretched, his left grasping at his waist. He looks out of the frame, as if he is looking towards his distant home. Because the man was not born in Britain: his skin is dark and tribal tattoos circle his wrists and dot the backs of his hands. In fact, the subject of the painting is Mai (the prefix “O” means “is”), a nobleman from the Pacific Islands, whose arrival in 1774, on Captain Cook’s second expedition, stirred up Georgian high society. He met George III and Samuel Johnson, dined with the Royal Society and spent a king’s ransom on souvenirs and clothing. It is likely that Reynolds knew Mai personally.
Now this magnificent painting could disappear from public view forever. Since 2001, it has been owned by Irish tycoon John Magnier. Between 2005 and 2011, it was exhibited at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. Other than that though, he has been to a secure art facility and remained in the UK. But last year, its owner (it’s unclear if Magnier still owns the painting) applied for a permanent export license. This was blocked by the Export Review Committee for Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, an independent advisory board, which argued that it had “global resonance”. The painting was valued at £50 million. If that money is not found by July 10, it will revert to private hands and may leave Britain.
As a work of art, it is exceptional. Reynolds was the leading British portrait painter of his day. He was the first president of the Royal Academy, and his works exemplified the Georgian elite, capturing generals, statesmen, intellectuals, dukes and duchesses. As his great rival, Thomas Gainsborough, lamented: “Damn, how varied he is!”
It is also distinguished by the fact that everything appears to be the work of Reynolds himself. His secret was his army of industrious helpers. A trained eye can easily spot the moment he lost interest in a piece: his study often filled in the drapery and background. Omai, however, has none of those telltale slips: every inch shimmers with Reynolds’ signature brushstrokes. One more proof, perhaps, of how much the painting, or its subject matter, meant to him.
However, what are we going to do with his subject? Certainly, in our culturally sensitive times, painting evokes an uncomfortable chill. It is palpable evidence of one of the first waves of British colonialism and the exotic chill that Mai aroused in Georgian society. There’s also something sad about her description: while there is some suggestion that her white robes are native Polynesian garb, to my mind they look Middle Eastern. Meanwhile, her dramatic pose is inspired by the Roman statue Apollo Belvedere. The painting, then, is one grand colonial fantasy: the classical dignity of Ancient Rome wrapped in the garb of the Middle Eastern “other.”
However, it is more complicated than that. By all accounts, Mai was an honored visitor. She chose to travel from the Pacific Islands with Captain Cook, seeking George III’s help in overthrowing his tribal rivals; and when she returned two years later, without troops but laden with gifts, he was rich and esteemed. Reynolds may have been inspired by Rousseau’s concept of the “noble savage,” but Mai seems to have enjoyed his celebrity. The artwork also has historical significance: it is the first full-length portrait of a non-white subject in British art.
But what happens to him now? On Tuesday, 20 leading academics and writers wrote to the government, urging it to help raise the £50m needed to secure Omai for the nation. Valuation is far from an exact science, and I would hazard this sum is a bit high (the last painting was on the market in 2001 for £12.5m). However, it seems unlikely that cash-strapped institutions could buy it without outside help or a generous private donation.
For most of the last two decades, the portrait has not been seen in public; however, it is a vital chapter in the history of British art. I am opposed to leaving the UK. But if he must go abroad, perhaps a Polynesian institution could house him? – must be given due importance, position and context. We cannot forget that art is not what is painted, but what remains in the public consciousness. And therefore, this signal work deserves once again to be housed somewhere where it can be seen, studied, and left speechless by the viewer.