Captain Cook and the Pacific: Art, Exploration and Empire.  John McAleer and Nigel Rigby. 2017

Captain Cook and the Pacific: Art, Exploration and Empire. John McAleer and Nigel Rigby. 2017

McAleer, John and Rigby, Nigel. 
Captain Cook and the Pacific: Art, Exploration and Empire
Yale University Press. 
ISBN 978-0-300-207248. 
256 pages. 

The overwhelming strength of this book is the number of illustrations—253 in 256 pages, meaning almost one picture per page.



What is the book?  According to its foreword, it “explores the story, context and legacies” of Captain Cook and his voyages through the collections of the National Maritime Museum (NMM), Greenwich.  It does so with nine pages by John McAleer and Nigel Rigby, who have individually written four each, and jointly written the introduction.


Chapter one begins with the portrait of Cook by Nathaniel Dance, painted in 1776.  It is the most famous image of him.  The painting came to the NMM in 1936 just before the museum opened its doors to the public for the first time.  We are told that it was “originally commissioned by Sir Joseph Banks to commemorate Cook’s return from his second voyage to the Pacific Ocean” and was “intended to hang over the fireplace in the library of Banks’s Soho Square home”. 


The book’s second illustration is of Banks by Benjamin West, painted in 1771.  As the image is from the NMM’s collection it is not of the colourful painting but a black-and-white engraving of it.  The third illustration is in colour, or should I say in black-and-brown, as it is the plans of Endeavour in 1768.  The original is over 1 metre long, so the detail is difficult to discern in this reproduction, but the strength of the book is that it has done its best, both by using colour, and by spreading it over two pages. 


Two illustrations in chapter two are ones I had never seen before, and examples of the delights of the book.  They are colourful vignettes showing surveyors at work around Cape Breton Island in 1777.  They are by JFW Des Barres, a surveyor who worked briefly with Cook in Newfoundland in 1762.  These pictures gave me a greater under­standing of how Cook and others worked in boats and on rocks than anything I had read.


Amazingly, chapter two ends with Cook’s death!  It doesn’t begin with his birth, skips his boyhood and time in Whitby, jumping straight into him joining the Royal Navy in 1755.  We are quickly taken through the ships in which he served: Eagle, Solebay, Pembroke and Northumberland.  I was pleased to read that Cook played “an important part in Holland’s survey of the St Lawrence River” in Canada, as most books ignore Samuel Holland’s role, and imply Cook did all of the work.  I was disappointed that Cook’s ship Grenville is not mentioned, the next one being Endeavour.  I was very pleased to read that Cook had no hand in her selection, as most books imply he chose her.  Ten pages are devoted to Cook’s First Voyage, six pages to his Second Voyage, and five pages to his Third.  As the book is not aimed at being a biography but an exploration of the NMM’s collections, this rapid sail through his life seemed understandable once I got over the shock.


Chapter three explores “Europe’s growing knowledge of the Pacific through the museum’s collections from early Spanish forays to Cook’s voyages.”  It begins with Magellan, romps through other Spaniards, then through Dutch explorers, and on to the English.  Thereafter it looks at the development of scientific instruments, with illustrations of a backstaff, an octant, marine barometer and a marine timekeeper.  Not just any old marine timekeeper but John Harrison’s H4, a copy of which by Larcum Kendall was taken, and tested, on Cook’s Second Voyage.  One of the most interesting pages in the book occurs in this chapter; it explains that Cook and his men not only under­stood the principles of building a chart, but also using and crediting the work of others. 


In chapter four we learn that the “greatest navigations of the Pacific were those of the Polynesians, not the Europeans who bumbled their way through the ocean, missing almost all of its islands”.  Some Polynesian double-hulled vessels were up to 100 feet in length, and capable of carry­ing 250 people.  Several of the Pacific people en­countered by Cook were drawn by the artists who accompanied him.  We are told that some portraits were made of named individuals, and others were general observations, “less portraiture and more ethnographic depiction”. William Hodges produced generic images “aimed at recording a representative type of islander, yet they are also deeply sympa­thetic depictions”.  A later chapter properly intro­duces the artists, but we do learn here that John Webber was “interested in depicting indigenous architecture.  He showed the structures of the build­ings he encountered, their methods of construction and the materials with which they were made”.


Chapter five is about art, and contains 17 mag­nificent paintings in colour.  It begins with a detail from Hodges’s “A Cascade in the Tuauru Valley, Tahiti”, painted after the voyage in 1775.  The brushstrokes can be seen!  The full painting is depicted later in the chapter, with the comment that he used “sublime landscape elements” to “elevate and transform” the picture.  


The three artists discussed in this chapter are Sydney Parkinson, a “flora and fauna man trained neither as a portraitist nor as a landscape artist”, William Hodges, who was “trained in the classical landscape style”, and John Webber, trained in landscape and portraiture.  Four pages are devoted to Parkinson, twelve to Hodges, but less than one to Webber.


Sydney Parkinson sailed in Endeavour.  He “made 1300 drawings, of which over 800 were of plants and animals.  His coastal profiles “conform­ed to the needs of maritime exploration by pro­viding visual information about the topography and morphology of the land”.  To illustrate the point are some drawings rarely reproduced in publications.


Hodges not only painted during Cook’s Second Voyage, but was also employed by the Admiralty for a further two years “to make large finished oil paintings, several of which he exhibited at the Royal Academy”, London.  One of his tasks in Resolution was “the routine training of officers to make coastal profiles, of which he drew many…  Towering, craggy peaks are silhouetted against a vast sky and calm water, and dappled light effects are produced as the vegetation picks up and reflects the differential fall of the light”.  There is an interesting discussion about one of his paintings of Tahiti over whether it was produced there or back in London, where it was designed to be hung over a door, and viewed at a distance.


Webber’s fame “rests largely on his fine topo-graphical and ethnographic work from the voyage, planned with publication in mind”.  He completed over 200 drawings and 20 portraits whilst in Resolution on Cook’s Third Voyage.  Back in London he continued to work for the Admiralty for another five years.  At the Royal Academy he exhibited 22 paintings from 1784 to 1787.


Chapter six looks at how the images and objects were shown to the public.  Within three years of the return of Endeavour “European society was transfixed by illustrated accounts of the voyage”.  More than 100 editions and impressions of the official and unofficial publications appeared by 1800.  In 1788 Webber issued “a series of plates of Pacific views based on drawings and studies not included in the official account”. 


Chapter seven takes us away from the Cook voyages, but not the men who sailed with him.  We are told about those who went on to “command their own voyages of exploration with distinction”, and to “train officers, who… followed them”.  Their names are little known today, so this chapter, which begins with a fine portrait of Nathaniel Portlock, is a welcome addition.  We are told that it was not uncommon “for naval officers to serve in merchant ships if suitable employment in the Royal Navy was not available”, especially in peacetime, which is why Portlock and others went on trading voyages to north-west America in search of sea-otter furs to sell at Macau.  


Chapter eight considers how Cook’s death “gave impetus to commemoration and celebration of the voyages, which were increasingly refracted through that of the man”.  He “quickly came to stand for a great deal more than the events of his own life and for a lot more than the voyages he led”.  Monuments, memorials and markers that “osten­sibly commemorated Cook were employed by a range of interested groups for a variety of political ends”.  Amongst the items covered in this chapter are a ditty box, a Royal Society medal, monuments at Vache Park, Easby Moor and Stowe, and wine coasters.  There is some discussion about the reasons for statues erected in Australia and New Zealand, and the “material mementos” of 1968 produced for the “bicentenary of Cook’s embarka­tion in 1768”. 


The final chapter begins with the glorious portrait of Cook by William Hodges, painted in 1775.  It was acquired by the NMM in 1987, and was its “most expensive painting acquisition to that date”.  The painting is a fitting start to a chapter about how the museum has acquired and displayed its Cook collection.  At its opening in 1937, King George VI gave the museum manuscript journals of Cook’s First and Second Voyages.  A photograph of the opening shows the royal family and a view familiar to many visitors to the museum—the colonnades linking the Queen’s House to one of the museum’s wings.  Cook was not a prominent part of the museum to begin with, and the first temporary exhibition about him did not take place until 1956.  It was held at the suggestion of the Hakluyt Society, which was publishing “the first of J.C. Beaglehole’s authoritative editions of Cook’s journals”.  Beaglehole was one of those who advised on the exhibition’s content.  1968 saw the small Cook gallery considerably enlarged.  A revised version opened in 1970, but closed after three years for building works.  It was not until 1978 that a new Cook gallery appeared.  It changed “within a few months to become Captain Cook and Mr Hodges” for a year.  A statue of Cook was presented to the NMM in 1994, but not installed until 1996.  Sadly, it is no longer there, but may be back in 2018. 


The museum held its first Cook conference in 1997.  The building work for the development of the Neptune Court led to Cook ending up in a section of a gallery about trade and empire.  In 2004 another art show of Hodge’s works appeared, and Cook’s role “in testing chronometers” was part of the exhibition about longitude in 2014.  


This book is written for the general reader, but the language sometimes drifts into academic phrasing.  There are references to other academics with little or no explanation as to why they in particular have been mentioned or quoted.  I was pleased to recognise most of the names, but doubt the general reader would do so.  My favourite part of the text is not in the main book but in an endnote.  On page 244 in note 23 to chapter 5 we are told “The NMM holds 26 oils relating to the voyage, of which 24 were either painted for or acquired by the Admiralty, and the other two probably escaped from it”. 


Cook’s Log is mentioned on page 243 in note 24 to chapter 4.  I am sure the late CCS member Allan Klenman would be pleased that his 1983 book The Faces of Captain Cook appears three times in the endnotes to chapter 8.  I was surprised to find there is no bibliography.  However, as the eight pages of endnotes are so well laid out, and full of informa­tion about the books and articles quoted, the omission is forgiven.


Ian Boreham

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 42, volume 40, number 4 (2017).

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