National Portrait Gallery set sight on £50m painting

Words by
Sphere Editors

31st August 2022

Set to open to the public again in 2023, the gallery is looking for a showpiece following their £35.5m renovation

Joshua Reynolds Portrait Of Omai

The National Portrait Gallery is trying to raise £50m to buy Joshua Reynolds Portrait of Omai in addition to their £35.5m refurbishment of the gallery. If they are successful it will make it the joint most expensive work ever bought by a UK museum (Titian’s Diana and Actaeon was jointly acquired by London’s National Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland in 2009. 

First reported in The Art Newspaper, Omai is arguably the greatest portrait by one of the finest British portraitists. It depicts the young Tahitian man Mai (also known as Omai), one of the earliest Polynesian visitors to Europe, who sailed to Britain with Captain Cook in 1774 following Cook’s first voyage. Omai returned to Polynesia in 1777, accompanying Cook on his third voyage, and probably died there two years later, aged around 26.

A spokesperson for the NPG told The Art Newspaper: “Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Portrait of Omai is one of the greatest British portraits and a painting of singular national, and international, cultural significance. The National Portrait Gallery is supportive of the crucial efforts being made to give UK institutions the opportunity to acquire this uniquely important painting for the nation to ensure it goes on public display once and for all, where it belongs. The second deferral period will give us the chance to explore a number of fundraising leads and gives potential supporters the opportunity to come forward to help stop this key work of British culture from leaving.”