A Woman of Kamchatka © Captain Cook Memorial Museum
The Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby has acquired a rare collection of drawings depicting natives from one of the remotest regions in the world. The drawings, by John Webber RA (1751-1793), were made in Kamchatka during Captain Cook’s third and final voyage.
Webber’s works were purchased from a private collector in America for £241,971, raised with the help of grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund (£188,500) and The Art Fund (£50,000). The series was the largest holding of original Cook voyage material that remained in private ownership, and had rarely been back to England since being sold overseas 75 years ago.
“Webber’s drawings are extraordinary, and not simply because they were created during what was to be Cook’s last great voyage of exploration,” commented naturalist David Attenborough, who is an expert on Cook’s voyages.
“They show a humanity and sympathy with the Kamchatkans as individuals, rather than simply depicting them as specimens of a previously unknown people. They have a unique importance as records of an indigenous culture at a time when they had little contact with others.”
A Man of Kamchatka © Captain Cook Memorial Museum
On his third voyage, begun in 1776, renowned explorer Captain James Cook attempted to find a Northwest Passage between what is now north-east Russia and Alaska. It was the first time a British expedition had crossed the Arctic circle on the Bering Straits side, which was found to be impassable and frustrated Cook very much.
This frustration combined with a stomach ailment is said to have caused Cook to behave somewhat strangely during this part of the expedition, for instance forcing his crew to eat walrus meat, which they found inedible.
The pioneering voyage also gave the official artist, John Webber, the opportunity to make the first European representations of the people and places of these far northern latitudes. He recorded the people of Kamchatka in 1779 during two visits to Avancha Bay.
Woman of Kamchatka © Captain Cook Memorial Museum
He made both sensitive studies of faces and full figure drawings illustrating their costume, in works portraying men, women and children. One drawing shows the interior of a summer dwelling.
Over the course of the four year voyage on the HMS Resolution he produced around 200 drawings in total and 20 portraits in oils, including four of Cook. Most were done on the spot and outside. His employment on the voyage cemented his reputation and his career.
The portraits of Cook were to be the last from life, however, as the voyage was a fatal one for Cook. Having been foiled in attempts to find the northerly passage, he took the Resolution down to Hawaii, where he was killed in a skirmish. News of his death reached England overland via Siberia and St Petersburg in advance of the Resolution’s return in 1780.
Kamtskadales (Natives of Kamchatka) © Captain Cook Memorial Museum
“We are delighted to show these wonderful drawings once again in this country,” said Sophie Forgan, Chair of the Captain Cook Memorial Museum.
“They have an immediacy and a poignancy, because they bring the story of Cook’s third and last voyage full circle – from the town where he trained and in whose ships he sailed, to the place where the news of his death was sent back to Britain.”
“We are enormously grateful for all the support we have received,” she added.
David Barrie Director of The Art Fund, and Fiona Spiers, Heritage Lottery Fund Manager for Yorkshire and the Humber, both expressed their approval of the purchase. Mr Barrie pointed out that it follows hot on the heels of an important William Hodges drawing earlier this year, also acquired by the Museum with help from The Art Fund.
The drawings are now on display in the Museum, as is a painting of the Tahitian Omai by William Parry. The third voyage was ostensibly undertaken to return the Pacific Islander from London to his homeland.