Tuhituhi: William Hodges, Cook’s Painter in the South Pacific.
Otago University Press.
This book is a study of William Hodges’ drawings and paintings during Captain Cook’s Second Voyage. The purpose of the expedition was to locate and circumnavigate Terra Australis Incognita to prove or disprove the existence of this unknown territory in the Southern Ocean. The Admiralty instructed Cook to sail to high southern latitudes during the southern hemisphere’s summer months and to call upon known locations in the South Pacific during winter months, such as Tahiti and New Zealand, which Cook had visited during the First Voyage. This purpose serves as the historical context for Hodges’ paintings and Simmons’ study.
The book is divided into twelve chapters featuring Hodges’ paintings in specific locations. There are three chapters each dedicated to New Zealand (Aotearoa) and Tahiti (the Society Islands) as well as single chapters on Antarctica, Easter Island (Rapa Nui), the Marquesas (Te Fenua ‘Enata), New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and New Caledonia (Kanaky). A final chapter on New Zealand considers the 20th century paintings of New Zealand artist Colin McCahon (1919-1997) and their relationship to Hodges’ work.
Except for the circumnavigation of Antarctica, the book follows Cook’s travels in chronological order from 1773 to 1775. While the focus is on an analysis and interpretation of Hodges’ paintings, the author draws illustrative material from Cook’s journals and those of others, such as JR Forster and George Forster, William Wales, Anders Sparrman and Charles Clerke.
Tuhituhi is a Maori verb meaning to write or to draw. Using this word, we might suggest the title could read, To draw: William Hodges Cook's Painter in the South Pacific, which is precisely what Hodges did during the three-year voyage. Simmons also uses Maori names in the titles for most of his chapters identifying other South Pacific island groups visited during the Second Voyage.
The author states the book’s purpose is “to explore the bridge between Hodges and ourselves, his modern viewers, as well as that between himself and the peoples and landscapes of the South Pacific he encountered and sought to represent.” His introductory chapter points out how, in examining Hodges’ portraits of Cook and Mai, “Every portrait is also a self-portrait of the artist who paints it.” Therefore, interpretations of paintings examine how Hodges (or Cook, or the Forsters, etc.) interpreted and interjected concepts into perspectives behind a particular painting. The artist painted what he interpreted of what he saw based upon his concepts and intellectual framework (or those of others), not what might be “actually there” to be viewed by 18th century visitors or contemporary native peoples.
This attitude leads to the Simmons’ second approach to Hodges’ works, which he describes as “the formal dynamics of individual paintings.” In painting South Pacific landscapes, artistic works fall within the 18th century aesthetic concepts of the “picturesque” (e.g. beautiful symmetry or asymmetry) and the “sublime” (e.g. awe- or terror-inspiring), along with scientific discovery. In addition the author suggests the paintings represent a “cross-cultural encounter” between English explorers and peoples of the Polynesian Triangle, as well as “the politics of the ideology of empire.”
Each chapter follows an identical organizational pattern. The author selects one painting, described “as emblematic of the work Hodges did in each location… [This approach] allowed me to respond to what I see as the suggestiveness and unsuspected resonances of Hodges’ work within the large framework of eighteenth century culture.” Simmons provides a contextual approach for each painting, drawing upon Cook’s writings and those of others during the Second Voyage. On occasion, Simmons will cite various secondary sources for interpretation, works by historians, ethnographers, anthropologists, and others. These citations reveal that Simmons has a good understanding of the historical context of Cook’s Second Voyage as well as its literature. Primary and secondary source writings are also considered in light of cross-cultural exchange and imperial ideology.
Students of cross-cultural exchange deal with circumstances when disparate cultures first come into contact, such as 18th century English explorers and peoples of Oceania, and the resulting impressions (quite often false) created on both sides of the encounter. The tremendous contemporary interest in the accounts of Cook’s voyages may have stimulated expansion of 18th century (and later) drive for empire.
The author provides a detailed analysis of Hodges’ paintings, especially the painting determined to be “emblematic” of a particular location. I am neither an artist nor art historian let alone a person qualified to provide a critique of art. Simmons’ analysis adds great perspective and unseen detail to what I might conclude about a particular painting. I find his analysis of the “emblematic” paintings to be a very valuable contribution, and it is best feature of this book.
Among the “emblematic” paintings are several of my favourites: “View of Pickersgill Harbour, Dusky Bay” (April 1773), “A View of Cape Stephens in Cook’s Straits With Waterspout” (1776), “Tahiti Revisited” (1776), and “Ice Islands and Ice Blink” (1773). The author’s standard approach to landscape paintings is to provide a one page summary of the painting – the scene’s location and activity (if any), the artist’s use of colours, the shape of the landscape, human activity (or lack thereof), human appearance and artefacts, and specifics to each setting such as the height and shape of mountains, trees, and vegetation, the conditions of the ocean or bay, as well as the sky (sun, clouds, etc.). Simmons points out that each painting is how Hodges saw the scene and applied concepts of the picturesque and sublime, as well as contextual subjectivity of cross-cultural exchange to each work.
The book is useful for Captain Cook enthusiasts for at least two reasons. While not analyzing a complete catalogue of Hodges’ works, the book serves as a reference for interpretations of many of his paintings. These insights are valuable. With my untrained eyes I can now begin to see how aesthetic concepts of the picturesque and sublime are found in Hodges’ paintings. Secondly, the book adds perspective to Cook’s Second Voyage by combining artistic productions with extracts from journals and log books along with modern scholarly interpretations. The author does not always date his journal citations, which is sometimes confusing as to chronology. The book’s organization and statement of purpose is followed-through in the text.
Most of my own research focuses on Cook’s Antarctic and sub-Antarctic travels. I find nothing to quarrel about in Simmons’ chapter on Cook in the high southern latitudes, but I was a bit surprised not to find a reproduction of Hodges’ sketch of “Possession Bay,” which many Cook philatelists and historians will readily recall as the only sub-Antarctic location that Cook landed upon during the Second Voyage. There is, however, a selection of seascapes and views of South Georgia to provide the reader with a useful array of Hodges’ work in Antarctica, such as “Ice Islands With Ice Blink,” The Island of South Georgia, January 1775” and “The Ice Islands, Seen on the 9th of January 1773”.
This book is not aimed at the general or casual reader, and it is not a book to curl up with during cold winter evenings. Although likely written for an academic and specialized audience, it is not crammed with post-modern or post-colonial interpretative jargon. A researcher of the Second Voyage would find this book useful.
Simmons included a selection of colour and black and white pictures of Hodges’ Second Voyage paintings, some completed after Resolution returned to England. On occasion, comparison photographs with specific land- or ocean-scapes painted by Hodges are included. The book contains endnotes, a bibliography, a list of illustrations, and index.
James C. Hamilton
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 31, volume 36, number 2 (2013)