Robert Anderson, surgeon on the Resolution during the third voyage of Captain James Cook, made this entry in his journal on 13 February 1777, the day after his ship's arrival at Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound.
'The wind gentle and variable with very fine weather. The people employ'd in fixing tents by a rivulet which runs into the largest cove here and which has formerly been occup for the same purpose by Captn Cook and Captn Furneaux; others were sent to cut grass for the live stock and some hauld the Sein in the morning with which they were again successful' (1).
We can imagine the expedition artist, John Webber, getting his first close look at a land he has heard so much about, keenly taking in his surroundings, coming ashore and busying himself with sketches of this new place, the people who live in it, and the trappings of their daily lives. Over two weeks he amassed a portfolio of drawings recording the ship's stay in Ship Cove.
Some eleven years later, in his London studio, he composed the painting that has come to us here. It shows the two major emphases of Webber's work. One is as a documentary artist, accurately recording scenes on a scientific expedition. The other is as a landscape artist, arranging the elements of the scene and the treatment of figures and light according to the principles of artistic composition of the time.
The documentary elements are there: the local people - showing typical clothing, gear, and canoes - carrying out their daily activities, including trading with the visitors. The astronomy tents mentioned by Anderson are also there (not very suitably positioned for astronomical purposes, it seems) as are some representative British sailors.
Webber has depicted the scene in accordance with his artistic training in the Claude Lorrain principles of landscape composition. Foreground, middle ground, and background are tastefully balanced. The groups of people are static and picturesquely arranged. The focal part of the picture is lit with a calm, golden glow coming from some undefined source.
The effect of the whole is to make the exotic seem familiar, to conform to the eighteenth-century European viewer's ideas of harmony and beauty. For us today, the painting has a somewhat stilted look. Our interest is more in the documentary value of a painting that is one of the earliest pictorial records of New Zealand's history.
(1) Beaglehole, J C. editor. (1967).The Journals of Captain James Cook vol 3: the voyage of the Resolution and Discovery 1776-1780. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press and the Hakluyt Society. p 797.
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.
Docking, Gil and Dunn, Michael. (1990). Two Hundred Years of New Zealand Painting.Auckland: Bateman. Revised edition.
Joppien, Rudiger and Smith, Bernard. (1985 - 87). The Art of Captain Cook's Voyages. vol. 2. Auckland: Oxford University Press.
Pound, Frances. (1983). Frames on the Land; early landscape painting in New Zealand. Auckland: Collins.
Other works by John Webber in Te Papa's collection