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Blog and News

The conservation of Omiah

30th April 2019

Parham’s portrait of Omiah has just returned to the newly decorated Green Room, after five months of conservation work in a private London studio. Originally bought by Mr and Mrs Pearson as a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, it is now thought to be by his pupil and friend, the artist James Northcote (1746-1831).

Who is Omiah?

Omiah was the first South Sea islander to come to England. He was brought to London in 1774 by Captain James Cook, on his second great voyage to the South Pacific. When Cook arrived in Tahiti in 1773, Omiah, who was very knowledgeable about the plants of that island, approached him with a request to meet his King, George III. When he got to England, Omiah lived in London with Cook’s friend, the renowned botanist Sir Joseph Banks, at his house in Soho Square. Omiah was celebrated by London society, and indeed met the King. He was taken back home to Tahiti by Captain Cook after a couple of years.

Why does Omiah’s portrait hang at Parham?

Sir Joseph Banks was an ancestor of Mrs Clive Pearson, who with her husband, Clive bought Parham in 1922. Sir Joseph had sailed with Cook on his first voyage on the Endeavour in 1769, the aim of which was to study the Transit of Venus for The Royal Society in Tahiti in the South Pacific; he had also helped to fund this project. The Pearsons, very interested in the story of Cook’s exploration and the involvement of Sir Joseph, bought the painting of Omiah. They put it on display in the Green Room, as well as several other items which had once belonged to Sir Joseph.

What work has been done to the painting?

The picture had been significantly obscured by the yellowed varnish layers, making it very difficult to see the subtle play of creamy, yellow and pink colours within the costume. Additionally, old retouchings from earlier restorations had discoloured and no longer matched the colours of the surrounding original paint. Although paintings by Reynolds can be notoriously difficult to clean, studio works are most likely to be less inclined toward technical experimentation. It proved to be so in this case, as it was possible to reduce the old varnishes very successfully, bringing back much of the intended play of colour and spatial recession.

What is the result?

The painting is generally thought to be a studio replica – probably in large part by Northcote – of a more famous, fully autograph version of the same composition now in a private collection. The recent treatment has made clear its quality, allowing us fully to appreciate its confident, swift and assured brushwork, and raising interesting new questions about the relationship between the two works.

To find out more about The Green Room and the collection of paintings and artefacts here at Parham, please click here.