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Empire, Barbarism, and Civilisation: Captain Cook, William Hodges, and the return to the Pacific Guest, Harriet. 2007

 

Carr 1983Empire, Barbarism, and Civilisation: Captain Cook, William Hodges, and the return to the Pacific
By Harriet Guest, and published in 2007 by Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-88194-4

Harriet Guest has been preparing this book for many years, and most of the chapters are revised versions of essays that have appeared in journals or books, including one on William Hodges1.

I didn't get off to a good start with this book. The introduction is divided into seven numbered sections and it was only in section six that I discovered the purpose of the book: "This is not an attempt to tell again the story of the second voyage, and nor is it a narrative of Hodge's career as an artist. This book narrates a cumulative process of exploration and analysis through the discussion of particular moments which expose the difficulties and uncertainties of constructing an imperial vision in the South Pacific."

The section continues with a 3½-page summary of the following six chapters and epilogue, and it was tempting to stop here, skipping the rest of the book, apart from looking at the illustrations, 50 of which are in colour and only 32 in monochrome. I presume it is the printing process that has determined that the monochrome images are spread through the book and the colour ones grouped together in the middle. However, turning the pages of these colour reproductions of Hodges paintings (and so many of them) is a great joy and worth the price of the book alone.

Whilst I didn't understand everything I read, I was glad I worked my way through the book for the enlightenment it brought me of how Hodges's paintings were probably perceived in London in the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment, and what we can learn from them today. Let me illustrate this by looking at one painting that is considered in depth by Guest in the first chapter, "A View Taken in the Bay of Otaheite Peha", i.e. Vaitepiha in Tahiti, probably produced in 1775-6 when Hodges was back in London.

Guest writes the painting suggests "the fertile abundance of vegetation, the physical or sensual ease, that made the idea of Tahiti an image of Paradise to Europeans." She quotes from a reviewer in 1777 of several Pacific landscapes saying "It is rather surprising however, that a man of Mr. Hodges's genius should adopt such a ragged mode of colouring; his pictures all appear as if they were unfinished, and as if the colours were laid on the canvas with a skewer." Guest goes on to discuss the painting in great detail bringing out many aspects that I'd not seen before. She uses her knowledge of paintings the 18th century spectators would have been familiar with, and of which I am certainly ignorant. For example, she notes "the posture of the woman alludes to that of Diana, in Titian's Diana and Actaeon", which is illustrated in the book so we get the point.

Guest describes details in Hodges's painting that are not easy to see in most reproductions in books, as they are much smaller than the original 36 inches by 54 inches (915 mm x 1371 mm). Fortunately for me, I've seen the original which hangs at Anglesey Abbey, a country house in Lode, Cambridgeshire and owned by the National Trust. Even so, I hadn't noticed that to the right of the seated woman are a tii (a carved image) and a tupapau (a platform bearing a corpse) close to the edge of the painting. And the meaning of their inclusion, as described by Guest, would certainly not be apparent to me if I had looked at them. But it is now.

I wasn't sure if this book by an academic was aimed at other academics or the general public. It is of value to both groups, being packed full of information, but its sometimes dense language will make it harder for the layman to enjoy.

Reviewer: Ian Boreham

References

  1. Quilley, Geoff and Bonehill, John (editors). William Hodges, 1744-1797: the Art of Exploration. Yale University Press. 2004. ISBN 0-948-06558-3. Reviewed in Cook's Log, page 28, vol. 28, no. 1 (2005).

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 38, volume 31, number 2 (2008)

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