Culture Minister defers export of rare portrait of pioneering maritime chartmaker Alexander Dalrymple

Culture Minister, Margaret Hodge, has placed a temporary export bar on a rare likeness of Alexander Dalrymple, the first Hydrographer to the Admiralty.

A mariner and chartmaker, Dalrymple compiled over a thousand nautical charts mapping many of Britain's trade routes for the first time, invented the concept of the Admiralty Chart and made an enormous contribution to the safety of shipping. This will provide a last chance to raise the money to keep the portrait in the United Kingdom.

The Minister's ruling follows a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, administered by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. The Committee recommended that the export decision be deferred on the grounds that the portrait is so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune.

Dalrymple, as first Hydrographer to the Admiralty from 1795, is correctly credited with the concept and design in 1800 of the Admiralty Chart, developed through the following two hundred years to constitute an ongoing body of over 4000 charts, guaranteeing safe navigation of the oceans by navies and merchant shipping alike.

Lord Inglewood, Chairman of the Reviewing Committee, said: "Although relatively unknown today, Alexander Dalrymple through his pioneering work on nautical charts, is a pivotal figure in the development of the global maritime industry as well as of the British Empire".

The decision on the export licence application for the portrait will be deferred for a period ending on 23 June inclusive. This period may be extended until 23 September inclusive if a serious intention to raise funds with a view to making an offer to purchase the portrait at the recommended price of 137,500 (excluding VAT) is expressed.

Anyone interested in making an offer to purchase the portrait should contact the owner's agent through:

The Secretary
The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest
Museums, Libraries and Archives Council,
Victoria House,
Southampton Row
London WC1B 4EA

Notes for editors

1. Media enquiries on the operation of and casework arising from the work of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) should be directed to Communications Manager, John Harrison, on 020 7273 1402, email:

2. The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest is an independent body, serviced by MLA, which advises the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on whether a cultural object, intended for export, is of national importance under specified criteria. Where the Committee finds that an object meets one or more of the criteria, it will normally recommend that the decision on the export licence application should be deferred for a specified period. An offer may then be made from within the United Kingdom at or above the fair market price.

3. Pictures of this item are available. Please email (MLA no longer subscribes to the PixMedia website service.)

4. The portrait represents Alexander Dalrymple at age 28, full-length and seated, in East India Company sea-officer's uniform, with globe, map, chart and dividers on the table beside him, and uniform sword leaning against the background chimneybreast. The portrait is regarded as having been painted at the Dalrymple family home of Newhailes, near Edinburgh, probably in the Chinese sitting room, at the instance of the sitter's eldest brother, Sir David Dalrymple, later Lord Hailes, during a rare visit which Alexander made there in 1765 after thirteen years' absence in the East Indies. Its attribution to the Edinburgh portraitist John Thomas Seton makes it an early work in that painter's considerable oeuvre.

5. No other original likenesses of Dalrymple are known in the United Kingdom. A small pencil profile, by George Dance in 1794, of Dalrymple in later life is to be found in the National Library of Australia collections in Canberra. Until the emergence of the Seton portrait, impressions from an engraved plate copied from the Dance profile, and degraded prints derived from a lost small half-length sketch by John Brown, were the only images known of this remarkable eighteenth-century public servant.

6. Dalrymple began surveying in the China Sea and the Philippines in command of an East India Company ship from 1759 onwards. As well as being retained by the East India Company from the 1770s to 'examine the ships' journals' and to 'compile charts and sailing directions for publication for use by East India Company voyages to India and China', a position he held for almost thirty years, Dalrymple was appointed, in 1795, the first Hydrographer to the Admiralty. In this role he was charged with turning an archive of manuscript sea surveys into a body of charts for safe navigation during the Napoleonic wars.

7. As a confidant of Sir Joseph Banks, and an adviser to government officials such as Philip Stephens, Evan Nepean and William Marsden, he provided plans and topographical information for Vancouver's voyage and recommended to the Colonial Office routes to the Pacific to supply Nootka Sound after the Spanish controversy in 1790. His achievements also included furnishing sailing directions for missions to China which culminated in Macartney's embassy, advising Banks on the Privy Council examination of Meares after the Nootka Sound affair and supplying charts for Blankett's naval squadron to the Red Sea to combat the threat of Napoleon's eastward advance from Egypt.

8. From Dalrymple's establishment in Whitehall in 1800 of a chart compilation and printing workshop there grew in the nineteenth century, under Sir Francis Beaufort and his successors as Hydrographer, the entire operation of the present-day UK Hydrographic Office, internationally respected as provider of charts and navigational information for mariners. The UK Hydrographic Office main administrative building in Taunton is named after Dalrymple, and Dalrymple's own manuscript charts of islands in the East Indies form part of the British hydrographic archive, now being deposited in The National Archives at Kew. Dalrymple brought into the Admiralty Hydrographic Office many of the charts he created and engraved for the East India Company, and they continued to be issued until the late nineteenth century, the last being withdrawn only in 1959.

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Published on: 2008-04-24

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