Omai, Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Charles Solander by William Parry
In the UK, when valuable or culturally important works of art are to be exported abroad, an export license must be applied for. In exceptional circumstances, and particularly when a work is of great national importance, the government has the opportunity to issue a temporary ‘export stop’ on the work, giving British buyers, including museums, the opportunity to purchase it. In 2002, a temporary export stop was issued on this painting, for which a foreign buyer had offered £1.8 million, because of its exceptional and national significance. This was partly due to its sensitive portrayal of Omai, Britain’s first Tahitian visitor, as an equal in the social milieu in which he rose to fame. The painting conveys the enthusiasm felt after Captain Cook’s first two expeditions to the South Pacific and represents eighteenth-century Britain as a hub of cosmopolitan society, intellectual patronage and scientific enquiry.
The National Portrait Gallery and the National Museums & Galleries of Wales mounted a joint acquisition campaign aimed at keeping the painting in the country. Subsequently, the foreign buyer pulled out of the sale, allowing the portrait to be revalued. At this stage, the Captain Cook Memorial Museum at Whitby joined the consortium. There followed a successful Art Fund application and public fundraising campaign, and, with the support of donations from a number of private benefactors, the painting was acquired for £950,000 in 2003.
Ownership is shared by the three institutions and display time is based on the contribution each made to the purchase price, with the Captain Cook Museum entitled to the portrait for five years out of every ten, and the National Portrait Gallery and National Museums & Galleries of Wales entitled to 2.5 years each. This agreement allows the painting to be viewed in the context of three very different collections. For the Cook Museum, the portrait signals the achievement of Captain Cook on his Pacific voyages and highlights the visit to Whitby of Banks and Omai. For the National Museum and Gallery of Wales this is a great work by a significant Welsh artist who has depicted a moment of historical significance in eighteenth-century Britain. For the National Portrait Gallery the painting’s scale, composition and grand manner setting illustrate the stature and collaboration of those individuals forging Britain’s place in the world at this crucial juncture in exploration, European scientific thought and international relationships.