Sir Joshua Reynolds’ “Portrait of Omai”, one of the greatest British portraits and a work of unique historical and cultural importance, is on the verge of being permanently lost to Britain. It is the subject of a temporary export ban, which runs out within days. We, the undersigned, call on the government urgently to support a campaign to save it for the nation.

The painting depicts the Pacific Islander Mai (his correct name) who came to Britain from Tahiti in 1774 on Captain Cook’s second voyage, aged about 22. He was the first Polynesian to visit England and became an instant celebrity, meeting King George III, attending the state opening of parliament and travelling the country with Joseph Banks. Mai returned to the Pacific in 1776 on Cook’s third voyage.

Reynolds’ exceptional, full-length portrait of Mai presents his subject in a classical pose as an exotic, idealised figure, representing him as the epitome of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s new concept of the “noble savage”. The painting captures a historic moment of encounter between the British and the non-European worlds.

As a “signal work” in the history of colonialism, scientific exploration and of the Pacific, “Portrait of Omai” is an artwork of the utmost international significance. It is perhaps the greatest work of Britain’s greatest portraitist and the first ever grand portrait of a non-white subject. The story of Mai is now of more interest than ever as we seek to examine our past and understand who we are as a nation.

For all these reasons, Omai should stay in Britain. It is privately owned, and £50mn is needed to keep it here. While state institutions cannot afford this sum, a work so precious can be saved through efforts to fundraise. However, this can only happen with government support. We therefore call on the government unequivocally to endorse a fundraising campaign to buy the portrait and secure it for public display in Britain. We must value and preserve our culture, in all its complexity.

Nicholas Thomas
Director, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Professor of Historical Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Sujit Sivasundaram
Professor of World History, University of Cambridge

James Fox
Director of Studies in History of Art, Emmanuel College, Cambridge

Arthur Burns
Professor of Modern British History and Academic Director of the Georgian Papers Programme, King’s College London

Simon Woolley
Baron Woolley of Woodford, Principal of Homerton College, University of Cambridge

David Armitage
Lloyd C Blankfein Professor of History, Harvard University

Dr Sophie Forgan
Chairman of Trustees, Captain Cook Memorial Museum

David Olusoga
Professor of Public History, University of Manchester

Peter Mandler
Professor of Modern Cultural History, University of Cambridge

Joanna Innes
Emeritus Professor of Modern History, University of Oxford

Margot Finn
Professor, Modern British History, UCL

Stephen Deuchar
Director of the Art Fund, 2010-20

Penelope J Corfield
Emeritus Professor, Royal Holloway, London University

Tim Hitchcock
Professor of Digital History, University of Sussex and Co-Director: The Old Bailey Online and London Lives

Patrick Vernon
Windrush Day campaigner and commentator

Flora Fraser
Writer and historical biographer

Ed Vaizey
Baron Vaizey of Didcot, Minister for Culture 2010-16

Wilfrid Dimsdale
Descendant of Thomas Dimsdale, English physician who treated Mai

Helen Rappaport
Writer and historian, Devon, UK

Lucy Ward
Writer, Cambridge CB10, UK

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