Rush in UK to raise £50m to save 'The Portrait of Omai'

Sir Joshua Reynold's 18th-century work is one of Britain's most significant paintings

Sir Joshua Reynolds 'Portrait of Omai' seen before hanging in London's Tate Britain museum. PA.
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Britain is scrambling to raise £50 million to keep a renowned 18th-century painting from leaving its shores.

The Portrait of Omai depicts a Polynesian man who sailed to Britain with Captain Cook and became a major celebrity.

The life-size painting was created in 1776 by Sir Joshua Reynolds, one of the foremost artists of his era and the first president of the Royal Academy. His style influenced many of his contemporaries.

Upon completion, the work was kept in Reynolds's private collection until his death in 1796. Since then, it has gained status as one of the most culturally significant portraits in Britain.

The oil-on-canvas painting, estimated to be worth £50m, is reportedly owned by John Magnier, an Irish business magnate and owner of the Coolmore Stud, one of the most well-known racehorse breeding operations in the world.

Mr Magnier bought the work at a Sotheby's auction in 2001 for £10.3m but it remained in the UK after authorities refused to grant it a permanent export licence.

The painting went on display at Tate Britain in 2005 and then in 2006, it spent six years at Dublin’s National Gallery of Ireland.

Earlier this year, the painting became subject to a temporary export ban until 2023 amid interest from undisclosed foreign buyers.

It has since been reported that Britain's National Portrait Gallery is in talks to buy the painting.

The Art Newspaper has disclosed that several bodies — including the Art Fund and the National Heritage Memorial Fund — are likely to offer to bring the painting into the public collection.

However, private donors will also be needed to finance the rest of the purchase.

An Art Fund spokesman said: “We have been discussing how we could potentially support and campaign to save this incredibly important work.”

Updated: September 01, 2022, 3:44 PM