Qatarâ€™s five-year deal with National Portrait Gallery means historic picture will return to UK after exhibition in Doha
By Maev Kennedy
The face of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo in the portrait by William Hoare, which is to remain in Britain, at least for the time being. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery
The dignified, handsome face of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, the earliest known British portrait of a freed slave, will remain in London at least for the time being after an agreement between the National Portrait Gallery and the paintingâ€™s owner in Qatar.
The Qatar Museums Authority paid Â£530,000 for the painting at a Christieâ€™s auction, but the government imposed a temporary export bar after the sale because the work, by William Hoare of Bath, was seen as having great historic importance to the UK.
It shows Diallo as a devout Muslim, holding his Qurâ€™an, which he had written himself from memory in London, and was apparently made at the request of his English friends despite his religious misgivings over being portrayed.
The NPG managed to match the price but the Qataris have reached a five-year deal to lend the work to the London gallery instead and abandoned the attempt to export the painting. The portrait will also be seen on a UK tour to Leicester, Liverpool and the north-east, and in 2013 will be the centrepiece of an exhibition in Doha, before returning to Britain.
Sandy Nairne, director of the NPG, said: â€œIt is a portrait that sheds new light on cultural and intellectual exchanges in the first half of the 18th century.â€
Diallo, known in England as Job Ben Solomon, was born around 1701 into a wealthy and scholarly family of Muslim clerics in Senegambia, west Africa. He was highly educated and spoke several languages. However the former slave owner and trader was captured by a rival tribe, humiliated by having his beard shaved, and enslaved. He was rescued from a tobacco plantation in Maryland by Thomas Bluett, an English lawyer and missionary, and brought to England where he became a celebrity, meeting George II and the intellectuals of the 1730s, and translating Arabic documents and inscriptions for Sir Hans Sloane, whose collections would become the nucleus of the British Museum.
The NPG launched a campaign last summer to buy the picture, and raised the full amount with more than Â£100,000 in public subscriptions plus Â£330,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and Â£100,000 from the Art Fund charity. The donations and grants will now be returned.
Roger Mandle, the American director of the Qatar Museums Authority, said: â€œWorking with the National Portrait Gallery will allow the cultural, historical and religious significance of this portrait to be fully researched. This material can then be shared on an international basis.â€
However, there will inevitably be more tricky discussions about the painting. Having dropped their bid to export the painting, Qatar cannot apply again for a licence within 10 years â€“ but the London museum would like to keep the picture permanently.