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Video clip synopsis – Omai, a young Tahitian warrior who joined Captain James Cook’s second voyage, had his portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds and inspired a spectacular pantomime at Covent Garden.
Year of production - 2008
Duration - 5min 30sec
Tags - art, artists, Betty Churcher, drawing, Pacific region, painting, portraiture, sketchbooks, South Sea Islanders, see all tags


South Sea Islander in London

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About the Video Clip


From the series Hidden Treasures – Inside the National Library of Australia
The National Library of Australia is the country’s largest reference library with over nine million items in its collection, including a surprising number of art works. In a new series of Hidden Treasures, Betty Churcher presents an insider’s guide to some of the little known and rarely displayed art treasures held by the National Library. From her unique vantage point, Churcher makes intriguing historical connections between paintings and engravings, photography, manuscripts and artefacts, illustrated journals and diaries. These are fascinating tales about the creative process and the works themselves that offer a tantalising insight into Australia’s culture and heritage.

A Film Australia National Interest Program in association with Early Works. Produced in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. With special thanks to the National Library of Australia.

Background Information


A young Tahitian warrior named Omai enlisted as a crew member during Captain James Cook’s second circumnavigation of the world. On his arrival in London in 1774 he was welcomed into the highest social circles. England’s most sought-after 18th century painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds, painted his portrait in 1774, for which a rare sketch is held in the National Library collection. While Omai eventually returned to the islands, his story inspired a spectacular pantomime at Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. With costumes designed by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, the pantomime brought ethnographic realism to a somewhat farcical plot.

Classroom Activities

  1. The visit of Omai was a sensation in late 18th century Britain. Why would a visit by a person from another place arouse such interest?
  2. Can you suggest a comparable visit or visitor that might cause a similar sensation in our society today?
  3. Portraiture investigates personality, both in style and use of aesthetics. Compare Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait of Omai to those of another portrait artist. What are the main similarities and differences between the two? If you were going to create a self-portrait what approach would you take? What would it look like?
  4. With their permission, take digital photographs of other students. Select one photograph and place a grid over it, or draw the grid directly onto the print. On a larger piece of paper draw an elongated grid with the same amount of shapes as the original grid on the photograph. Transfer the image. This drawing could be produced in any medium of paint, pastels or pencil etc.
  5. Summarise in just one or two sentences why this item is a ‘treasure’ in our knowledge and understanding of aspects of Australian history.

Further Resources


Go to Screen Australia Digital Learning’s Arts Portal

For more on Omai and Captain Cook go to The National Library of Australia