Britain foils Australian bid to buy historic kangaroo, dingo paintings

LONDON (AFP) - Two paintings thought to be the first depiction of a kangaroo and a dingo in Western art will remain in Britain after a national fund-raising campaign to stop them from being sold to an Australian gallery, officials said on Wednesday.

The oils by British animal painter George Stubbs were first exhibited in London in 1773, giving the public their first glimpse of the exotic creatures most identified with the wild new territory of Australia. The National Gallery of Australia wanted to buy the paintings from their private owner, describing them as "integral to Australian art history" and insisting "they should belong to the people of Australia".

The British government, however, blocked their export in February until this week to allow a British museum to raise money to buy the works of "national importance" itself. The National Maritime Museum in London said it has now raised 4.5 million pounds (S$9 million) with the help of charitable and public donations. This has enabled it to "save these paintings for the nation and bring these remarkable works to the widest possible audience", a spokeswoman said.

Kongouro From New Holland and Portrait Of A Large Dog were commissioned by Joseph Banks, a naturalist who took part in Captain James Cook's first voyage in the Pacific in 1768-71. Stubbs never himself set eyes on a dingo or a kangaroo but worked from verbal accounts, skeletons and by inflating the preserved skin of a kangaroo.

Renowned British naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough welcomed their purchase by the London museum.

"Exciting news that these two pictures, so important in the history of zoological discovery, are to remain where they were commissioned and painted," he said.

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey added: "This is great news and 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."