Portrait of Captain James Cook


'Mr Webber,' writes James Cook in his journal, '... was engaged to embark with me, for the express purpose of supplying ... such drawings of the most memorable scenes of our transactions, as could only be executed by a professed and skilful artist.'(1)

Cook posed for this portrait by John Webber shortly before leaving on his third voyage of exploration in the Pacific. Perhaps Webber had just been offered the job of expedition artist. If so, he may well have been contemplating what several years at sea was going to be like in the company of this famous explorer. He had not completed the portrait by the time the expedition left, in July 1776. That did not happen until 1780, when he was back on shore in England. By then, he'd had nearly three years with Cook, and Cook was dead - killed in Hawai'i.

It is a portrait that connects Cook to his life's work. He is in his naval captain's uniform. He has a telescope in his hand - a symbol of his role as navigator and explorer. Webber has set him on a rocky shore, with wind-blown sky and sea in the background - a hint of the elements that rule a seafarer's life.

Cook's pose is casual, but he looks straight out at us, and firmly. He gives the appearance of someone used to being in command. We can perhaps imagine the man who had the reputation of being a despot at sea. When Webber presented the completed portrait to Cook's widow, Elizabeth, she is reported to have disliked it. She thought it made Cook look severe, it didn't convey the picture of the kindly family man that she carried within her. Certainly, it is not a portrait designed to flatter its subject. But it gives a plain view of a person who probably regarded himself as essentially straightforward.

Today, the painting is seen as a competent example of portraiture in the late 18th century, but not in the class of the great portrait artists of the time, Gainsborough and Reynolds. Its value to us is as a visual record of a person with a unique role in our history, and as a perspective on his character.

To see other examples of Webber's work from this voyage, look at his drawing of the house interior at Nootka Sound on the North American coast. See also his Ship Cove oil painting that he completed some ten years after visiting Ship Cove in the Marlborough Sounds.

Reference

(1) Beaglehole, J C. editor (1967). The Journals of Captain James Cook: the Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery 1776 - 1780. Cambridge: Hakluyt Society.

More information

Some of the following publications may be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves, or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre on Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa Collection items may be ordered from Images, on Level 4.

  • Beaglehole, J C. editor. (1955-1967). The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery. Vols. 1-3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press and the Hakluyt Society
  • Morris, Susan. (1996). John Webber 1751-1793 in The Dictionary of Art. Vol 33. London: Macmillan.
  • Wilton, Andrew. (1992). The Swagger Portrait: grand manner portraiture in Britian from van Dyck to Augustus John 1630-1930. London: Tate Gallery.


Other images of Captain Cook in Te Papa's collection  



 

Portrait of Captain James Cook, about 1780
by John Webber (1751-93)
oil on canvas
Gift of the New Zealand Government 1960
Neg No: B.041000 © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
| | | |