Thursday, May 6, 2010

Artists On Board

Captain Cook in the Pacific. / Nigel Rigby and Pieter van der Merwe. Greenwich, England: National Maritime Museum, 2002. 144 p., color illustrations.

When James Cook returned to Plymouth, England in 1771 from his first voyage to Tahiti, Australia and beyond, he surrendered his journal as master of the ship. The journals were proof of the enterprise and provided information about the excursion to the financial supporters of the voyages. Travelers on these ships were pledged to present their journals and logs to the Admiralty, although some kept their own versions privately for publication and fame later on. Of immense value to the members of the Royal Society awaiting news of Cook’s voyages were the drawings, engravings and paintings by ships’ artists that served to inform them about the wonders of distant lands in the Pacific Ocean, the people and their resources.

A few botanists, astronomers, topographers, and painters, etc., accompanied the crew and Captain Cook on the ships Endeavor, Resolution, Adventure and Discovery as they sailed into unknown waters on three separate voyages between 1768 and 1779. The scientists’ tasks were to painstakingly examine the soil, plants, animals, and local resources, to describe and illustrate them in journals and to actively preserve samples and seeds of trees, fruits and grains, and if any minerals and valuable stones were available, to bring them back to Britain for examination. Of the artists who accompanied these voyages, William Hodges became famous for his dreamy and romantic visions of the Pacific coves where Cook’s ships anchored. Paintings by him were shipped back to England for immediate viewing. (Rigby and van der Merwe, p.42)

Nu-tka: Captain Cook and The Spanish Explorers on the Coast. / Barbara S. Efrat and W.J. Langlois, editors. Victoria, British Columbia: Sound Heritage, Volume VII, Number 1, 1978. 101 p., illustrations.

The coasts and islands of the South Pacific, Australia and New Zealand provided work for the ships’ topographers who were busy on these voyages creating maps of as yet unknown territories beyond Southeast Asia and the Philippines. During Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific, he searched the West Coast of North America for the Northwest Passage. Instead he found the inhabitants of islands and inlets along what is now western Canada and southern Alaska. Some of these people are known as the Nootka Indians who traded fur pelts with the British voyagers. The topographer John Webber is better known to us as a portrait engraver, who created likenesses of the Nookta, the landscape and of James Cook himself.

Explanation of terms used:
James Cook (1728-1779): captain of the British ships Endeavor, Resolution, Adventurer and Discovery entrusted with scientific inquiry in the late 18th century
Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce: since 1754 improved trade and industry through science. (Rigby and van der Merwe, p.79)
Admiralty: British organization for maritime issues
botanists, astronomers, topographers: scientists selected for the purpose of advancing British claims to knowledge in plant science, geology and map making, respectively.
third voyage to the Pacific: Cook’s expedition, 1776-1780, to locate the Northwest Passage, a mythical route from the Atlantic to the Pacific over the North Pole.
Nootka: tribe of people who inhabited a part of Vancouver Island now known as Nootka Island

Book titles from the Library: Be sure to look at the Maritime Museum Research Library pages on the web. You can find many of the books cataloged at Los Angeles Maritime Museum members can borrow books for a three-week period.

Web sites of Interest:

William Hodges at the web site of the national Maritime Museum of Greenwich, England.

John Webber:
See ArtEncyclopedia's collection of sites about the artist.
Nootka culture from Canadian Culture Online.

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