The picture was sold at Sotheby’s Old Masters Evening auction on July 7 and an export licence applied for.
But the UK government has put a temporary block on this in the hope a buyer in the UK can be found to keep it in the country.
The portrait was sold as part of the property of Lord Digby from Minterne House for a premium-inclusive £302,400 but £314,880 will need to be raised (which includes other fees and VAT) to secure it.
It depicts the young Prince William, the third son of George III, wearing his midshipman’s uniform on the quarterdeck of the Prince George during the American Revolutionary War.
American painter Benjamin West, who created the portrait, was appointed historical painter to George III from 1772, and this is among the most original of his works.
The government made its decision following the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest which said the picture is “significant for its connection to royal propaganda during the American war, but also for its relation to the cult of sensibility during the 1780s”.
The committee made its recommendation on the grounds that the portrait’s departure from the UK would be a misfortune “because it is so closely connected with our history and national life and it is of outstanding significance for the study of naval portraiture in Britain”.
Commissioned by his father, the Portrait of Prince William is one of the very few accurately to depict an 18th century midshipman. It also shows how the royal family used portraiture during the American Revolutionary War as propaganda, aiming to present the prince as an ordinary midshipman, working his way up the ranks without ‘parade’ or ‘marks of distinction’. The aim was to reinforce King George’s simple, moralistic public image and show the royal family living a respectable family life.
Committee member Prof Mark Hallett said: “This is a highly original and visually striking portrait of a royal prince by one of the leading painters working in Georgian Britain. Showing the future King William IV standing alone on the deck of a warship, dressed in his midshipman’s uniform, looking steadfastly out to sea and resting his hand on a sword, the portrait highlights both his youth and bravery.
“The work’s significance lies not only in its exceptional quality and interest as a painting; the portrait also provided the basis for a widely disseminated engraving that served to promote the modest, heroic virtues of the prince and his family at a time of profound national crisis.”
Arts minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay said: “This rare painting from the late 18th century gives us an insight into how the Hanoverian royal family wanted to be seen: as humble figures working their way up the naval ranks in the same way as anyone else. I hope this fascinating portrait, which teaches us about our royal and naval history, is saved for the nation so it can be appreciated for generations to come.”
The decision on the export licence application for the painting will be deferred until March 16, 2022. A second deferral period will commence following the signing of an option agreement with the owners that will last for three months.