I can’t remember when I last visited the Queen’s House at Greenwich, but I remember the beautifully enticing spiral stairs and the dazzling marble floor in the Great Hall. It is funny how some details stick in your mind, whilst others just seem to disappear. I have no idea why I came on my last visit, if it was in summer or winter, on my own or with my family, but I do know it is great to be back. Today is all about the Art and Science of Exploration 1768-80, a new exhibition on the artists who joined Captain Cook on his three voyages of discovery. The architectural splendour of the Queen’s House will have to play second fiddle today to the landscapes of William Hodges and the botanical illustrations of Sydney Parkinson.
There is so much context to the paintings in this exhibition, I spend a great deal of time listening to the curators, as they talk it is almost like they are painting their own pictures, building up the layers of story and interpretation to give you the complete picture. Without their expertise it is like looking at simple line drawings, their research and the time they have spent working with these pictures enables their words to really bring them to life. Here are paintings where you need to understand their stories and what they represent to really appreciate their importance and impact.
If you strip away names and dates, just focus on the fact these men were setting out into the complete unknown, a voyage of discovery to new lands and strange people, you begin to have an insight into how remarkable the paintings are. The work in this exhibition is their attempt to capture all that they saw and felt on their extraordinary travels. You only need to look at the painting by John Webber, ‘A party from His Majesty’s ships Resolution and Discovery shooting sea-horses’ to feel that sense of danger and adventure. The walruses, were in-fact mostly harmless, but here they encroach like mythical beasts ready to attack the sailors as they battle the turbulent sea and cruel icy fingers that reach out to trap them.
There was fame and fortune to be made on these voyages, Joseph Banks made his name on Cook’s first voyage, but equally fame came hand in hand with danger and death too. Two of the artists, Sydney Parkinson and Alexander Buchan employed by Banks, died on the journey. There is a sad poignancy to the unfinished sketches by Parkinson, his plans to finish them never realised. It fell to his patron, Banks, to employ a group of artists to complete his water colours and engravings, his 955 botanical drawings finished, aided by notes and specimens.
The threat and danger these artists worked under can clearly be seen in the heroic paintings by Johann Zoffany, with Cook’s death in Hawaii played out in dramatic fashion. Even in the face of these dangers there are pictures of the beautiful, untouched, natural worlds they visited, scenes that seem almost of fantasy lands with lush foliage and tranquil waters. But this European interpretation is turned on its head when you consider the impact these visitors eventually had on isolated, innocent worlds. These pioneers came to discover new lands but they also came on a mission of economic exploitation. Joseph Banks tried to transplant Bread Fruit that they found in Tahiti to the sugar plantations in the West Indies, where it could be used to feed the slaves. They took hundreds of plant specimens and did not realise in return they left a legacy of infections diseases which decimated native populations. To us what seems a magical bold endeavour to new worlds can also be viewed as the beginning of the end of these remote cultures.
Suddenly an intrepid ship on the horizon becomes full of menace, a native lounging in the shadows of a tree becomes a lonely, vulnerable representation of a people defenceless against this new, unimaginable threat. A close look at the above picture by Hodges can be seen in this way, the beautiful fantasy becomes a fragile dream to be swept away.
I am already beginning to see so many layers to these pictures that I had never thought about before and there are still more stories to unfold. The curator tells us how a number of pictures were painted on board ship, the view of Cape Town by William Hodges a perfect example. We often think of large oil paintings completed in a sterile, staid room, but here there is an immediacy and freshness to these landscapes. Hodges is not just painting art for art’s sake, here he is mapping coastlines, capturing rock formations and displaying a scientific fascination in the changeable weather, shifting clouds and shimmering shafts of light.
Competition with the Dutch for new trade routes and an eye for economic opportunity means this picture has a wealth of importance to the Admiralty, the Dutch fort is clearly depicted in the foreground, a useful by-product of the panoramic view. The fact that many of these works are owned by the Ministry of Defence, inherited from the Admiralty highlights their importance as more than just works of art.
I find the simple reality of taking enough materials and finding the space to work on board ship fascinating, suddenly these oil paintings have been given a new dimension I hadn’t expected. The painting above, “A view of the Cape of Good Hope, taken on the spot, from on board the ‘Resolution’ ” by Hodges is the largest known to have been completed onboard and was, remarkably, sent back and exhibited a year before the return of Cook’s ships. This is a wonderful insight into artists as journalists, with no photographs, film or social media they are documenting discoveries with an immediacy and freshness that captures the excitement of a new world. Sent back to sate the thirst of a home nation awaiting their first view of beautiful lands and strange creatures.
Strange creatures are the focus of the main attractions in this exhibition, pictures by George Stubbs of a Kangaroo and a dingo, the first European depictions of these animals commissioned by Banks from the foremost animal painter of the time. I am a big fan of Stubbs, normally recognised for his horse paintings, and I am excited to see these two artworks, saved for the nation in late 2013 from being sold and taken out of the country.
The kangaroo is coyly looking over its shoulder, it is an enticing pose, an animal enjoying adoration and yet ready to bound away at any moment. Stubbs did not see these creatures with his own eyes, remarkably he painted from sketches and an inflated or stuffed skin. My thoughts go to those first interactions with these creatures, what must the intrepid explorers have thought? My curiosity took me to John Hawkesworth’s fascinating book – ‘An account of the voyages undertaken by the order of His present Majesty for making discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere’
“Mr Gore, who went out his day with his gun, had the good fortune to kill one of these animals which had been so much the subject of our speculation…..The head, neck and shoulders are very small in proportion to the other parts of the body; the tail is nearly as long as the body, thick near the rump, and tapering towards the end; the fore-legs of this animal were only eight inches long, and the hind-legs two and twenty: its progress is by successive leaps or hops, of a great length, in an erect posture; the fore-legs are bent close to the breast, and seemed to be use only for digging; the skin is covered with a short fur, of a dark mouse or grey colour, excepting the head and ears, which bear a slight resemblance to those of a hare. This animal is called by the natives Kanguroo.” 1
I love these words, an introduction to the new and unusual, so hard to describe, unlike any other creature. The next sentence surprised me a little but makes for most entertaining reading.
“The next day, our kangaroo was dressed for dinner, and proved most excellent meat…”
In one moment awe and wonder and in the next a full belly and a kangaroo skin ready to be shipped home.
Stubbs’ dingo looks more like a fox than a wild dog but since he painted it purely from descriptions we can forgive his interpretation. I can’t imagine what it must be like to paint an animal having never seen it before. Looking close up at the painting I noticed some cracks in the finish and I spoke to the curator about the conservation work involved in caring for the two paintings. Stubbs it seems was as much an explorer with his art as Cook was with his journeys, the paintings are both on mahogany panels but instead of oil as a binding agent he used wax. He is trying new techniques with his art, pushing the boundaries to create a different finish, whilst fascinating to learn about it also made it incredibly difficult to work with from a conservation point of view as the wax would soak up any thing used on the painting.
The National Maritime Museum worked with the National Gallery Scientific Department using all the expertise available to preserve the paintings for the future. I think this is what really strikes me about these paintings, when I mentioned them being ‘saved for the nation’ in a sense they quite literally have. Being taken out of private hands and bought by generous donations has allowed the paintings to be cared for by experts with the knowledge and understanding of panel paintings.
For me this exhibition has been all about the stories behind the paintings, whether it be conservation, economic endeavours, artistic skill or military surveillance, we can view them now in 2014 as great art works but to understand the time in which the were painted, the reasons and the intentions creates a whole new dimension that completely fascinates me. I am excited to say the story doesn’t stop here at the Queen’s House either, the funding responsible for keeping them in the UK is also paying for our coy kangaroo to go travelling around the country to a number of partner museums and galleries as part of a project called ‘Travellers’ Tails’ . This is the perfect thought to end on, a kangaroo, discovered and eaten by Cook, painted by Stubbs and conserved by the National Maritime Gallery, free to hop on and continue his journey, to be rediscovered by new audiences and new visitors something no doubt Cook would have been very proud of.
1 p 577- 578 An account of the voyages undertaken by the order of His present Majesty for making discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere and successively performed by Commodrore Byron, Captain Wallis, Captain Carteret, and Captain Cook, in the Dolphin, the Swallow, and the Endeavour. Drawn up from the journals which were kept by the several commanders, and from the papers of Joseph Banks. By John Hawkesworth. 1773
Accessed 2 Sept 2014 via – https://archive.org/stream/accountofvoyages03hawk#page/576/mode/2up
The Art and Science of Exploration 1768-80 is free to visit at the Queen’s House, Greenwich. Open till July 2015, featuring the Stubbs paintings till January 2015. For more information see the website http://www.rmg.co.uk/whats-on/events/art-science-exploration-1768-80
To find out if the Kangaroo will be hopping by your neck of the woods please take a look at – http://blogs.rmg.co.uk/travellers-tails