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Monday, February 20, 2012

Offering of the Day: A Captivating Image of the Death of Captain Cook

WEBBER, John (1750?-1793).
The Death of Captain Cook
London: J. Webber andW. Byrne, 1st January, 1784.

Single sheet, float-mounted and framed (sheet size: 19 x 24 inches; image size 17 x 23 inches). Fine dark engraving by William Byrne (1743-1805) and Francesco Bartolozzi (1727-1815), after John Webber, R.A. (trimmed).

“Poor Captain Cook is no more...” (The Earl of Sandwich to Joseph Banks)

Third issue, to coincide with the publication of the official account of Cook’s “A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean”, in which it was not included, and first published separately in 1782.

It took eleven months for the news of Cook’s death on the 14th February 1779 in Hawaii to reach the British Admiralty in London. Cook’s third and tragic last voyage had attempted to locate the much sought-after North-West Passage, a longed-for ice-free sea route which would link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

After a long tour of the coast of Alaska as far as the Arctic Circle, Cook decided to over-winter in Hawaii, which he had named after his patron the Earl of Sandwich. “After carrying out a running survey of the easternmost of the Hawaiian Islands, Cook anchored in Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawaii on 17 January 1779. At first he was well received and by some accounts was considered by the Hawaiians as the embodiment of their god Lono. On 4 February 1779 Cook got under way to continue his survey of the islands but was forced to return to Kealakekua Bay for repairs after the Resolution's foremast was damaged in a violent storm. It soon became clear that his return was not welcome, and bad relations culminated in the theft of the Discovery's cutter. On the morning of 14 February Cook, with less than his usual judgment, landed with an escort of marines in an attempt to persuade the local chief to return on board where he intended to hold him as a hostage against the return of the cutter. The chief readily agreed to accompany Cook, but at the landing place they were met by a hostile crowd and in the altercation that followed Cook and four of the marines were  killed” (Andrew C. F. David for DNB).

The most matter-of-fact account of Cook’s death is to be found in the journal of First-Lieutenant James Burney (later Read Admiral): “with Glasses we could see Capt'n. Cook receive a Blow from a Club and fall off a Rock into the Water” (Burney, Feb 14th, 1779, volume 3, page 255)

But Webber, who although he was the official artist aboard the Resolution, was not an eye-witness to the scene, and necessarily interested in portraying an accurate description of Cook’s death. His intention was to create a moving tribute to a dying hero. He depicts Cook “calling to his people, in the boats, to cease firing” while he stands tall and upright, musket in hand, “making a choice between War and Peace at the cost of his own life” (Ghyndwr Williams “The Death of Captain Cook” pages 73-73).
“Cook's body and those of the marines were carried away by the Hawaiians and, according to custom, were cut up and the flesh scraped from the bones and ceremonially burnt, the bones being distributed among the various chiefs. Clerke, who now took command of the expedition, eventually manage to persuade the Hawaiians to return the majority of Cook's bones. These were put into a coffin and, on the afternoon of 21 February, were committed to the waters of Kealakekua Bay” (Andrew C. F. David for DNB).

Webber’s choice as official artist for Cook’s fateful third voyage had come after he had submitted “works for the Royal Academy exhibition in 1776. Two were views near Paris: one was entitled ‘Portrait of an Artist’, possibly a drawing of his sculptor brother, Henry. These impressed Daniel Solander, botanist on Captain Cook's first Pacific voyage (1768–71), who sought him out and recommended him to the Admiralty as draughtsman for Cook's impending third voyage in the Resolution and Discovery.
“Webber was appointed at 100 guineas a year on 24 June 1776 and on 12 July he sailed from Plymouth in Cook's Resolution. His fame largely rests on his fine topographical and ethnographic work from the voyage, planned with Cook and with publication in view. Guided by the surgeon, William Anderson, he also drew natural history subjects (as did William Ellis, surgeon's mate and the other active draughtsman). He returned in October 1780, after Cook's and Anderson's deaths, with over 200 drawings and some twenty portraits in oils, showed a large selection to George III, and was reappointed by the Admiralty at £250 a year to redraw and direct the engraving of sixty-one plates, plus unsigned coastal views, in the official account... Webber also painted other views for the Admiralty, his last payment being in July 1785. He also published two sets of voyage prints; four aquatints made by Marie Catherina Prestel (1787–88: one repeating his own etching of 1786), and sixteen soft-ground etchings by himself (1788–92) of which more were probably intended. The latter were pioneering, both in the medium used and as an artist's rather than publisher's selection. Reissued in aquatint from about 1808 as ‘Views in the South Seas’, they continued to sell into the 1820s” (Pieter van der Merwe do DNB). Forbes 108; Joppien 3.305A; Kroepelien 1083; O'Reilly & Reitman 417.

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