Exhibition | The Art and Science of Exploration, 1768–80

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on July 17, 2014


William Hodges, A View of the Monuments of Easter Island (Rapanui), ca.1776
(London: National Maritime Museum, BHC1795)

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Press release (17 June 2014) from the Royal Museums Greenwich:

The Art and Science of Exploration, 1768–80
Queen’s House, Greenwich, from 7 August 2014

This August The Art and Science of Exploration, 1768–80 opens in the newly refurbished rooms at the centre of the Queen’s House. Exploring the crucial role of artists on Captain Cook’s three voyages of discovery, the exhibition will be the first time that Stubbs’s Portrait of a Large Dog (Dingo) and The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo) will be on display since they were acquired by the National Maritime Museum in November 2013.

When Cook’s first expedition to the South Pacific returned to Britain in 1771, he brought back accounts and images of extraordinary lands, people, flora and fauna. Returning twice more over the following decade, Cook established a pattern for voyages of discovery that combined scientific investigation with artistic response. The newly-acquired Stubbs paintings will be joined by portraits, landscapes and scenes of encounters with Pacific islanders by William Hodges and John Webber as well as botanical prints and original drawings by Sydney Parkinson.


John Webber, Poedua, the Daughter of Orio, ca.1784 (London: National Maritime Museum, BHC2957)

Artists played an essential role on Captain Cook’s three voyages, producing both scientific records and imaginative responses to the unfamiliar lands that they encountered, forever influencing how the British public saw the Pacific. William Hodges was to become the first professional English painter to meet people previously unaffected by European contact, whilst John Webber’s painting of Poedua, the Daughter of Orio is one of the earliest portraits of a Polynesian woman by a European painter. The artists’ works were crucial to how places and discoveries were brought back and interpreted by those in Britain. Hodges’s paintings, particularly Tahiti Revisited, show how artists adapted the techniques and styles learnt in Europe to depict these exotic scenes for a British audience.

The middle section of The Art and Science of Exploration, 1768–80 looks at the work of Hodges, the artist who experimented and developed the most during his explorations with Cook and shared an interest in climate with the scientific men on board. He produced bright, vibrant studies that were on-the-spot responses to his environment with none of the classical allusion added to his later finished paintings. On display is Hodges’s A View of the Cape of Good Hope, Taken on the Spot, From On Board the Resolution, exhibited at the Free Society of Artists before he returned, along with eight of his small sketches, including the last oil study made on the second voyage, View of Resolution Bay in the Marquesas.

The third aspect of the exhibition focuses on the 30,000 dried plants and 955 botanical drawings by Sydney Parkinson that were brought back from Cook’s first voyage. The sheer quantity of new plants recorded was a defining feature of this expedition. Parkinson died during the return journey but his patron, the naturalist Joseph Banks planned to produce a book, employing a large group of artists to complete watercolours and engravings based on Parkinson’s sketches. However, it was not until the 1980s that all 743 prints were made. On display will be Parkinson’s original drawing, the watercolour, copper plate, engraving proof (all on loan from the Natural History Museum), and final print of two specimens collected at Endeavour River, Northern Queensland in 1770.

This exhibition shows the important role that artists had on the Cook voyages and on the European understanding of these faraway lands. They produced extraordinary images which worked both as scientific records of carefully planned exploration, as well as sensitive representations of an unfolding new world.

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Note (added 19 August 2014)In April 2015 George Stubbs’s The Kongouro from New Holland will start a 12-month tour to four UK museums: The Horniman Museum and Gardens in London, The Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby, The Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL, and the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow.

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