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7 March 2023

We should learn by the end of this week whether the National Portrait Gallery has been successful in its attempt to save Sir Joshua Reynolds’s painting of Omai for the nation. We will all rejoice if some philanthropist has come forward to write out a cheque, but it may not be as simple as that. Indeed the whole saga has raised so many different (and apparently unrelated) questions that I thought it might be worth putting them together in a post.

There’s no need for me to rehearse the history of the painting or explain its importance: there’s a vast literature. Starting points might be the documents on the Arts Council website (e.g. this summary). One aspect of the case is that it illustrates the shortcomings of Britain’s export licence scheme. Some of these are being addressed, notably the right of owners to reject matching offers, making the efforts required to raise funding not merely Herculean but Sisyphean; and I welcome the suggestion that the Culture Secretary is considering whether the destination to which the work is to be exported should be taken into account (a work in the Louvre is easier for most of us to see than one in a secret bunker in the UK).

The editorial in this month’s Burlington Magazine (here: free access) goes further, leaning towards the conclusion that the whole system be scrapped, and museums encouraged to purchase directly from families who want to bring their heirlooms to market. I’m sure people will be ready to point out that it takes UK museums time to put the funds together to bid at auction, and with even less certainty of success than under the former right-to-reject regime, it will be impracticable to do so.

Of course the real problem is that our museums don’t have adequate acquisition budgets, UK culture does not encourage US-style philanthropy and our governments won’t simply write out cheques for old master paintings (I don’t think they’ve done so for half a century or more). What we have instead is a somewhat Byzantine scheme of tax “douceurs” that sits alongside the export licensing scheme under the aegis of the Arts Council; it survives largely because people don’t understand it. In essence family heirlooms can be retained across generations without paying inheritance tax provided certain minimal public access conditions are met; when they are finally sold, they can be accepted in lieu of tax if UK museums want them. In other words UK taxpayers are being made to do precisely what the Government refuses to do openly (since voters would object: elitism as the polar opposite of levelling up etc.). But the pictures we get this way wouldn’t necessarily be the ones museums would select if they had a free choice (so there is a steady parade of Reynolds portraits and other pictures reflecting the taste of the owners of stately homes when Britain was a wealthy country, but rarely anything to fill the gaps, for example, in French dix-huitième painting). (There is a curious tension between the desire to save “our” pictures for the nation and the argument that our museums should retain the Elgin marbles etc. as centres of world culture.)

In the case of Omai the system failed at this first hurdle. When the Howard family decided to sell the picture in 2001 (to fund a divorce), Tate raised what might have been a sufficient offer when the tax douceur was taken into account only to find that the family had a different tax plan. This depended on arguing that the picture was in fact “plant and machinery” required in the business (of attracting paying visitors to the house), and as such was a “wasting asset” and thus exempt from capital gains tax. You might think this a rather ambitious claim (although less so if you understand the technical meaning of these terms in tax law); and the Revenue did too. Their interpretation succeeded at the First-tier Tribunal, but on appeal the Upper Tribunal allowed the claim. Incidentally if you’re American, and have watched Brideshead Revisited, you probably think that Castle Howard belonged to a Lord; if you’re British you know it belonged to an Hon. – but you probably think the painting belonged to him, while in fact the painting was sold by (and the tax case was in the name of) the Executors of Lord Howard of Henderskelfe. The decision is also worth reading.

You will all have followed the subsequent (and uniquely long running) story of export licence deferral. The particular problem here is that the owner doesn’t seem to be selling the picture at all: he merely wishes to take it out of the UK (one imagines to Ireland, but we have no idea where or whether it will then be lent to a public institution). (Incidentally for a picture that has been in private ownership it has been exhibited outside Castle Howard quite regularly – in at least eight public shows during my lifetime.) So the mechanism for export licensing, which is designed to come up with a matching offer (where it cannot matter to the vendor which they choose), again works imperfectly: this time there is no hard evidence that the value proposed is real. Instead the Reviewing Committee drafted in an independent expert who, the paper I cited above reported, “agreed with the applicant’s valuation of £50m and their detailed justification of it. This was … submitted to the Secretary of State who agreed that as the fair market price for the painting.”

But all of us involved in any way in the art market know just how difficult the valuation of paintings can be. Countless pictures come to auction with estimates which are exceeded by a factor of ten, while others fail, are re-presented repeatedly and are eventually sold for a fraction of the initial estimate. The phrase in physics for this type of assessment is “not even wrong”. And that’s the point: no one has a clue (unless they know a specific purchaser with a cheque book at the ready) whether this picture will sell for five times what it fetched 20 years ago, itself I believe a world record for Reynolds which still stands.

I’m not going to derail this blog by listing the hospitals or nurses we could pay for with the money – considerations which of course are only relevant to the extent that public money is used to fund the purchase. To some of us £50m sounds like the price of a good Rubens, and Reynolds, who may well be Britain’s best eighteenth-century portraitist, simply isn’t in that league. It feels like tulip territory – negative elasticity in the language of economics, where the price builds in a component of extra value derived from the price already being supreme: a kind of feedback loop that leads to prices that bear no relation to value. You get a similar result when two agents are sent to an auction with unlimited commission bids for a teddy bear which ends up reaching £50,000.

The price is so high a hurdle that there are rumours of a time-share with the Getty: this seems to me to offer a poor solution. I think we should only save pictures for the nation which are going to be part of the “permanent collection” of the institution bidding. For me that means that every time I go there I can be sure of seeing it (ideally in the same place: I hate it when museums undertake rehangs). Whims aside, there is a real danger if pictures as big as this have to be moved repeatedly, whatever the condition report says (and what do we do if a future report says it can’t be moved again?). The costs of transportation and the downtime of being in transit mean that we pay more than half the cost of the picture for less than half the walltime.[1]

One of the arguments widely put out is that this is the best picture Reynolds ever painted. It may well be; but it wasn’t always seen as such. Thus the price it fetched at the sale of Reynolds’s studio pictures in 1796, 100 guineas, was matched by two other lots, and comfortably exceeded by three more. The top lot, Hope Nursing Love, reached 150 guineas. It is now in Port Eliot. It was accepted in lieu in 2006 with 22 other paintings (13 by Reynolds) which together discharged…just £2.2 million tax. No need to write to me to tell me that Omai is the better picture: I don’t disagree, but my point is that we didn’t always think so.

You may say that the tastes of 1796 are now irrelevant. But differences of view about the relative merits of particular Reynolds portraits have continued to the present century. It is difficult to ignore the fact that the foremost Reynolds scholar of our day, David Mannings, given the opportunity to view Omai in the context of a monographic exhibition of Reynolds portraits in 2005, wrote this in his review in the Burlington Magazine:

Miss Crewe appears to be on long term loan to Tate: I assume that means that in due course we are going to be asked to save that for the nation as well. What will that cost?

The answer today is probably a great deal less than Omai, because she no longer ticks the boxes. How much has changed in taste and fashion over just 18 years. Again please don’t bother to tell me you prefer Omai: my point is precisely that museum purchases with public money need to reflect long-term value based on aesthetic criteria, not temporary whims.

I want finally to turn to one aspect of the picture which I find slightly uncomfortable but where I know none of you will agree. All I can say is that if I’d told you ten years ago that the people of Bristol would rise en masse and tear down a statue of their local benefactor and throw it into the river you’d have thought I was exaggerating.

Omai was portrayed by a number of artists during his stay in England. There is a group portrait by Parry already in the NPG – or rather sometimes there, as it too is on a timeshare with Cardiff and Whitby (so who knows how often its appearance in St Martin’s Place will coincide with the Reynolds), and a number of others including Nathaniel Dance. There is even a study by Reynolds himself, which fetched a mere 7 guineas in the Reynolds sale in 1796, probably the one now in Yale.

These are remarkably consistent, and show us the real Mai. The Castle Howard picture in contrast displays an imaginary figure cooked up by Sir Joshua from his imagination, revealing not the person before him, but a confection in an outfit from the dressing-up box that is more Lawrence of Arabia than Polynesian. The question it raises (for me at least) is whether this is acceptable. Of course there is a long tradition of historiated portraiture, of ladies dressed (or partly dressed) as goddesses with which I have no problem, nor do I worry when Byron dresses up as an Albanian for Thomas Phillips: but here did Mai really consent to his being depicted thus? Ethnic portraits were not that unusual at the time, but Reynolds was aware that an accurate depiction wouldn’t sell so well. He was right: fantasy trumps authenticity. But will we agree in another 18 years?

[1] There is a further technical issue with such an offer as I read the rules in the Arts Council notice (2018/1: I’m not an expert, and the rules may be have some flexibility; but I suspect the owner’s lawyers will wish to see them applied consistently): a joint offer of this kind is not by a “public body”, and as an offer from a private source, the Secretary of State can only take it into account if it offers public access in a UK museum, the guideline being a minimum of 100 days a year. That would seem to require annual travel.

Postscript (11 March 2023)

Apparently now the deadline for donations has been extended to 11 April , although I can find no further confirmation on the Arts Council, NPG, DCMS or Artfund websites. This is bizarre given how much public interest there is. And once again it reinforces the idea that the rules are made up as we go along, which hardly strengthens London’s case as a world art market centre.

I shouldn’t think the owner will be happy about the further extension. But, according to the rules, “additional deferral periods are rare and normally only granted where there is a reasonably certain prospect of raising the residual sum within a prescribed timescale.” So, one infers, it is reasonably certain that the NPG will make a full offer.

Today’s Telegraph overenthusiastically prints a photo of the painting with the caption “…after a deal prevented it going abroad permanently”, the main story however merely reporting the Getty joint bid was a “step nearer.”

Postscript (21 March 2023)

Finally, an announcement from the Art Fund: The deferral period has been extended to 10 June, despite the fact that funds raised so far remain under half the target required.

Postscript (31 March 2023)

The widely heralded joint venture between the NPG and the Getty has just been announced. I haven’t seen the details, but it does involve regular travel for this Flying Dutchman, including, after he NPG’s reopening in June this year, a tour of the UK regions.


From → Art history

  1. Nusbaumer permalink

    Merci beaucoup for this excellent article.

  2. Alastair Laing permalink

    It is indeed an excellent article, and covers just about all the relevant points. But though tastes do differ, and even more so over time, if one accepts that Reynolds was a great portrait-painter (though some, such as Neil McGregor, have been reluctant to), it is difficult to deny that this is the most powerful of all his portraits, dominating even from a distance, just as Stubbs’s ‘Whistlejacket’ does. Ideally, it should be acquired in order to do so, as that painting does, in the National Gallery ( but it is the NPG that has courageously been mounting the case to save it for the nation). It certainly shouldn’t be shuttled between London and (fault-prone) Los Angeles. That it is not a pure portrait is part of its strength, in keeping with Reynolds’s (and the prevailing academic) belief, that the idealised representation of nature was the thing.
    The whole story of the thwarted attempts to acquire it in the past is a dispiriting one of false decisions and mean-spirited behaviour. The acceptance of its current valuation at £50 million is also, I believe, flawed. The fact that there is one institution in the whole world that might be prepared to pay that much for it does not make it a just one. That is only a ‘might’; put into an auction, the picture would be highly unlikely to attain more than half that figure – that should have been accepted as its market valuation. But even at £50 million, were this to be France, there would be no question of the government failing to find a way of its being acquired for the nation. The nationality of an artist is just occasionally a key factor in the importance to a nation of a work of art, when it has always been part of its history: such is the case with Omai.

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