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Mai (Omai), Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander

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© National Portrait Gallery, London / National Museum Cardiff / Captain Cook Memorial Museum, Whitby

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Mai (Omai), Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander

by William Parry
oil on canvas, circa 1775-1776
60 in. x 60 in. (1525 mm x 1525 mm)
Purchased jointly with the Captain Cook Memorial Museum, Whitby and the National Museums & Galleries of Wales, with help from a private benefactor and local trusts, the Art Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation, Flora Fraser and Peter Soros, Sir Christopher Ondaatje, Linda L. Brownrigg, Randolph and Lara Lerner, Jon and Lillian Lovelace, the Clore Duffield Foundation, Sir Harry Djanogly, Hans and Mãrit Rausing, Lawrence Banks, the Swan Trust, Amanda Sebestyen, Sir David Attenborough, Lord Plymouth and Lord Windsor and many other donations, 2003
Primary Collection
NPG 6652

On display in Room 10 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

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Artistback to top

  • William Parry (1743-1791), Portrait painter. Artist or producer associated with 4 portraits, Sitter in 2 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Parry’s group portrait presents a realistic likeness of Omai, in a domestic setting, among the people who shaped his experience of Britain - Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander. Solander, Banks’ librarian and Keeper of Natural History at the British Museum, is seated taking notes while Banks, the scientist and entrepreneur, discourses upon Omai.
Parry’s conversation piece format, though grandly conceived, seems to celebrate the eighteenth-century principle of equality and collaboration in the pursuit of knowledge.

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.

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Events of 1775back to top

Current affairs

Act of Parliament extends inventor James Watt's patent (first granted in 1769) and the first steam engines are built under it.
First known building society - Ketley's Building Society - is established in Birmingham by Richard Ketley, landlord of the Golden Cross Inn.

Art and science

First performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play The Rivals at the Covent Garden Theatre in London.
Artist J.M.W. Turner is born.
Satirist James Gillray's first engravings and etchings are published.
Navigator Captain Cook publishes his discovery of a preventive cure against scurvy, in the form of a regular ration of lemon juice.

International

War of American Independence begins with British defeat at Lexington and Concord and lasts until 1783. British achieve a narrow and costly victory over the Americans at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Edmund Burke delivers a speech to the British Parliament on conciliation with the American colonies.
First performance of Pierre Beaumarchais' comic opera The Barber of Seville in Paris.
Pope Pius VI succeeds Pope Clement XIV as the 251st pope.

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