Smoking Coasts and Ice-bound Seas: Cook's voyage to the Arctic. Captain Cook Memorial Museum. 2008

Smoking Coasts and Ice-bound Seas: Cook's voyage to the Arctic. Captain Cook Memorial Museum. 2008

Smoking Coasts and Ice-bound Seas: Cook's voyage to the Arctic
Captain Cook Memorial Museum, Whitby.

There are nine pages of the actual catalogue, plus 43 pages of what are called "contributions". All of the 32 items in the exhibition are listed in the catalogue section, with useful notes on each and with nearly all of them illustrated.

The first of the four essays is by CCS member Glyn Williams. He describes the visits of the Resolution and Discovery to Kamchatka in 1779. A very interesting account of why Captain James Cook didn't go there but the ships did, once under the command of Captain Charles Clerke and then under that of Captain John Gore. The first visit was in the winter and the second in summer. As Webber showed, the locals lived in very different habitations during the two seasons. The reaction of the Russian authorities, especially the governor Magnus von Behm to the foreigners arriving on their shore is explained and put into perspective.

The second essay by Geoff Quilley is about the career of the Swiss John Webber, not only the artist on the Third Voyage but also the main interpreter between the ships' officers and the Russians. Quilley compares Webber with Hodges in terms of their artistic ability and the analysis of their work today. Whilst both were official artists, Webber was much more "the Captain's artist". I was intrigued to read about Webber's style of painting, including the explanation that, "Webber conspicuously renders the harsh Russian terrain in terms of a Dutch seventeenth-century tradition of landscape depiction". Quilley also gives reasons why one painting depicts some cattle even though James King observed there were none there.

A brief survey of the native peoples of the Siberian coast visited by the ships is written by S. A. Arutiunov. How they came to be there, their way of life and relationships with each other are all described. Webber's paintings depict a great deal more of the native way of life than I had realised, and this essay helped me study them in a different light.

Lastly, CCS member Sophie Forgan gives the results of her researches into how Kamchatka has been viewed by the rest of the world since the Third Voyage journals brought the area to the attention of the British and the rest of the world. Kamchatka became a metaphor or distance from civilisation and of coldness. In the pantomime "Omai or a Trip round the World", for which the scenery was partly created by Webber, Kamchatka appeared even though Omai never went there. Forgan ends by telling us the volcanoes of the smoking coast are a designated World Heritage Site and the place has a richer afterlife than when visited by the ships.

I counted a total of 59 illustrations across the 52 pages, 28 pictures being in colour. The book costs about the same as two monthly magazines, which I reckon is fantastic value.

Ian Boreham

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 47, volume 31, number 3 (2008).

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