Kangaroos, dingoes, Tahiti and Australia: Art and Science of Exploration at Queen’s House

By Christian Engel | 09 August 2014

Exhibition Review: The Art and Science of Exploration 1768-80, Queen’s House, London

Click on the picture to launch a gallery of images from the show

Displaying paintings, prints and drawings of Captain James Cook’s three discovery voyages between 1768 and 1780, this new long-term exhibition explores the role of artists during the famous journeys in the refurbished rooms of the Queen’s House.

These pictures, by artists such as William Hodges, George Stubbs, John Webber and Sydney Parkinson, have shaped Britain’s imagery and interpretation of Cook’s discoveries.

An image of a leaf
Castanospermum austral© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum / Alecto Editions
The artists who accompanied Cook’s crew had the crucial task of drawing and painting the countries they would see “as may be proper to give a more perfect idea thereof than can be formed from written descriptions only”, as the Admiralty instructed them.

The focus of the work of the artists, however, changed from voyage to voyage. When the crew’s vessel struck the Great Barrier Reef at the eastern coast of Australia during Cook’s first voyage (1768-71), the naturalist Joseph Banks took Parkinson with him to draw pictures of the Australian plants.

Banks brought home 30,000 dried plants and 955 botanical drawings by Parkinson, who had died from fever in Jakarta.

Since the artist barely had time to draw more than sketches of the plants, five artists painted watercolours based on his drawings.

After the journey, the foremost animal painter of the time, George Stubbs, was commissioned to paint the portrait of a dingo and a kangaroo which became regarded as iconic for the Australian continent.

An image of an oil painting of people moving on a tropical sea at night
Hodges, View in Pickersgill Harbour, Dusky Bay, New Zealand (circa 1776)© National Maritime Museum, London
While Stubbs’ image of the kangaroo was based on sketches and stuffed skin, the picture of the dingo was painted solely from description, and therefore rather resembles a fox.

The second voyage (1772-75) is of special interest in terms of artistic development. Hodges had to adopt the slow and deliberate manner of European painting techniques.

Confronted with the task of painting on the spot, and inspired by the effects of light and atmosphere of the new landscapes, Hodges developed a way of painting that appears almost impressionistic in hindsight.

A spectacular example of this technique is his portrayal of the Cape of Good Hope, diligently depicting even the smallest details of the rocky coast and the cloudy sky above – completely absent from the picture are the shine and allusions that are characteristic in his later works.

One of the largest paintings of the exhibition shows the Dusky Bay at New Zealand that Cook’s expedition visited during the second voyage, showing a Maori family against the backdrop of a waterfall, a rainbow stretching above them.

An image of a twig with green and light red leaves on three of its branches
Lumniterza littorea© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum / Alecto Editions
Bathing native women are the subject of another famous image by Hodges, depicting a paradisiacal Tahitian bay.

Encounters with the natives were not always so friendly. When Cook and some of his men landed at Eromanga, they were attacked by its inhabitants and had to fire at them, as another picture by Hodges shows.

The obstacles during Cook’s third voyage (1776-80) were bound to become even more dreadful. Commissioned to find a north-west  passage across the northern coast of the American continent from the Pacific, the expedition called at the Polynesian island of Ulietea, near Tahiti, at the end of 1777.

The island was so beautiful that two members of the crew deserted. Cook detained the King of Ulietea's beautiful daughter Poedua, her husband and her brother, in order to exchange them against the renegades.

John Webber painted a marvellous portrait of Poedua, showing her as the embodiment of the natural and sensual beauty of the islands.

On their search for the non-existent passage, the expedition reached the highest latitude of the continent and almost got locked in the ice of the North Pole.

A painting by Webber depicts Cook’s crew fighting shooting walruses in the middle of a rough Arctic Sea. On February 14 1779, Cook’s good luck came to a sudden end. At Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii, he was killed during a skirmish with natives.

However, his untimely death helped to make Cook a legend. A portrayal of his demise, painted nearly 20 years later by Johan Zoffany, bears witness to this fact.

Combining an accurate reconstruction of events with the conventions of heroic history painting, the picture shows a scared Cook lying on the ground, with a group of naked natives above him.

The admiration the great discoverer was held in at the time is symbolised by the basing of both his stance and the pose of his murderer, Chief Noo’an, on classical sculptures. 

  • Open 10am-5pm (closed December 24-26, early closure December 31, 12pm-5pm January 1). Admission free. Follow Royal Museums Greenwich on Twitter @NMMGreenwich.

Pics: National Maritime Museum, London; The Trustees of the Natural History Museum / Alecto Editions.

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