The National Gallery of Australia on Thursday blasted Britain’s decision to block the export of two historic paintings of a kangaroo and a dingo as depriving the nation of its heritage.
The two oils by British artist George Stubbs are thought to be the first depiction of the animals in Western art, with the kangaroo in the painting the basis for Australia’s earliest coat of arms.
They were first exhibited in London in 1773, giving the public their initial glimpse of the exotic creatures most identified with the wild new territory of Australia, but in recent years became the subject of an international tug-of-war.
The National Gallery of Australia had been negotiating to buy them from their private owner, a descendent of the wife of English botanist Sir Jospeh Banks, who took part in Captain James Cook’s 1768–1771 first voyage to the Pacific, including Australia.
But the British government blocked their export in February to allow a British museum to raise money to purchase the works of “national importance”.
The National Maritime Museum in London on Wednesday said it has now raised £4.5 million ($7.2 million, 5.4 million euros) with the help of charitable and public donations, reportedly enough to match the Australian offer.
“The National Gallery of Australia is extremely disappointed with the outcome of this British process,” the Canberra-based gallery said in a statement.
“The two Stubbs works represent the beginning of Australia’s rich visual culture and the Gallery believes they have much greater relevance to the development of Australian imagery and art than to Britain’s maritime history.
“The result of this export ban forever deprives Australian audiences of permanent access to two of the most historically significant works of art in the story of our nation’s visual heritage.”
British Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said it was “a perfect example of our cultural export licence system working to help keep a wonderful part of our cultural heritage in this country where it belongs”.