The Art and Science of Exploration 1768-80, The Queen’s House, Greenwich, UK – review

It was in the 18th century that art helped Europe fall under the spell of the exotic. The word had formerly evoked nothing but foreign barbarity; now it carried the seductive aura with which it is still associated. What had happened, paradoxically, was that the exotic had begun to be familiar. Artefacts and specimens brought back by global explorers had already been seen in London, Amsterdam and Paris, but now artists and printmakers got in on the act and their impact was decisive.

There were two practical reasons for taking professional artists on voyages of discovery: to depict coastal saliencies and anchorages for the benefit of navigation, and to keep a visual record of scientific phenomena. Yet, publicly exhibited and circulated as prints back home, this work created excitement far beyond seafarers and natural philosophers. The present concise exhibition at the Queen’s House, Greenwich, curated by the National Maritime Museum’s Christine Riding and Katy Barrett, is ostensibly to celebrate the acquisition of two paintings by George Stubbs illustrating Australian animals discovered during the first of James Cook’s three South Sea voyages, aboard the Endeavour. However it takes us beyond the work of Stubbs to three painters who actually travelled with Cook: Sydney Parkinson, William Hodges and John Webber.

The Stubbses are “The Kongouro from New Holland” and “A Large Dog (Dingo)”, which were saved from export last year after a national fundraising effort. Stubbs was regarded by his scientific contemporaries as Britain’s foremost artist-scientist – his Anatomy of the Horse was then, and is now, a classic of the scientific enlightenment, and he was accustomed to painting strange species as they appeared in England. So when Joseph Banks, Cook’s scientific officer, returned from the first voyage in 1771 with the skin of an immature female kangaroo, killed at the Endeavour River in what is now Queensland, it was natural that he commission Stubbs to portray the bizarre animal.

The skin, described as being “not above the size of a hare”, may have been inflated or stuffed before its “portrait” was painted on a mahogany panel, in colours mixed with wax rather than oils. Stubbs may also have seen drawings by Parkinson – very poor ones, probably based on fleeting glimpses of the animal in the wild. Parkinson had been one of the Endeavour’s two artists (and is himself represented in this exhibition by some fine botanical work) but he had not survived the voyage. So it fell to Stubbs to produce what would become the standard image for the kangaroo over the next 75 years, its image disseminated across Europe in more than 100 prints and books on natural history and geography.

Stubbs’s pendant portrait of the dingo never achieved such fame. With neither pelt nor a sketch to hand, it must have been based on verbal descriptions, and the result is a beautifully painted foxy-looking dog with a white ring in its tail, and legs rather too short for an actual dingo.

By the time these paintings were shown in London, Cook was deep into his second expedition. His official artist this time, Hodges, was a former pupil of the Welsh classical landscape painter Richard Wilson and, given the chance, he often instinctively elevated the Pacific landscapes to Wilson’s Claude-inspired classicising mode – smoothly painted views in which the tones are carefully controlled in recession from mid-ground to distance, usually with central bodies of water (bays, anchorages) within natural frames of tree and rock. This, while not denying the exotic, subtly familiarised it.

But Hodges made other images in a less self-conscious style, some apparently painted from the very deck of HMS Resolution, Cook’s flagship. A sparkling example of this stylistic immediacy is a view of Cape Town, a small huddle of white houses dwarfed by mountains and by the strong fort built to protect the anchorage. Another is “View of Part of the Island of Ulietea”, with its flecked white impasto for the breaking wavelets, its water receding to meet the horizon with the bare minimum of solid topography, and its sketchy native sailing skiff, whose reflection ripples in the water like an anticipation of impressionism. A third Hodges painting that negotiates between classicism and this more spontaneous documentary mode is “Tahiti Revisited”, in which he uses all his classicising skills to create a seductive orientalist vision – an island paradise in which naked and tattooed women bathe before soaring mountains under the eye of a carved pagan idol known as a “tii”.

On the third, fatal voyage (when Cook was murdered in Hawaii after a quarrel with islanders) the expedition artist was John Webber, less talented than Hodges but well capable of rising to the occasion. He did so stylishly in the icy wastes of the Bering Straits, which Cook ventured into in a short-lived attempt to find the northwest passage. The resulting “A Party Shooting Sea Horses” is an exciting account of sailors in their open boat, firing precariously at walruses for meat.

Utterly different from this is the portrait of Poedua, in which Webber, like Hodges, took the opportunity to marry classicism with orientalism. The sitter, aged 19, was a chieftain’s daughter from the Society Islands, held hostage for a time by Cook aboard ship in the hope that her father would restore some deserters from the Resolution’s crew. Webber’s semi-nude portrait, completed after his return, was based on drawings he made in Cook’s cabin. Joshua Reynolds had already portrayed an Apollo-like Omai, the young Tahitian who had been brought to London with Cook’s second expedition (and had been returned home during the third). Webber now produced a female counterpart – a tattooed Venus from the South Seas. This vision of natural erotic grace, somewhere between the noble and beautiful savage and a Titian nude, makes the picture ripe for discussion about the “male gaze” and colonial sexuality.

The exhibition will run until 2015, when the Queen’s House will close for refurbishment in preparation for its 2016 quatercentenary,

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