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Cook in context

by Diana Warnes, 1 September 2007

Robert Oatley's continuing benefaction has helped the National Portrait Gallery acquire works that add another layer to the story of Captain Cook.

Portrait of Captain James Cook RN, 1782 by John Webber
Portrait of Captain James Cook RN, 1782 by John Webber

In 2000 the National Portrait Gallery acquired a ‘foundation picture’ for the new collection, the remarkable Portrait of Captain James Cook RN 1782 by John Webber. The work was purchased with funds provided by the Commonwealth Government and the generous assistance of Mr John Schaeffer AO and Mr Robert Oatley.

At the time of purchase Mr Oatley mentioned that should any associated material on Cook become available for acquisition he would again be pleased to assist. Seven years later and true to his word, Mr Oatley kindly agreed to help the National Portrait Gallery buy several new items that celebrate the life and achievements of one of the greatest of all maritime explorers.

Four etchings, a Wedgewood relief and a medallion contextualise Cook’s three prodigious voyages to the Pacific that were undertaken in a space of just eleven years. The works are a testament to the appeal and success of Cook, who at the forefront of the expansion of the British Empire, sated the public desire for progress and adventure. These acquisitions are exquisitely executed with supreme skill by artists, engravers and sculptors in formats that are intimate, easily transported, celebratory and collectable.

The Royal Society executed a medal in commemoration of Cook’s life. Cast in silver and depicting Cook in profile, this portrait format is scantly represented in the Gallery collection, but is a vital reference to the history of the genre. A lovely portrait alternative is the Wedgwood bas-relief front view bust portrait of Cook. The image is based on a painting by William Hodges, the official artist on the second voyage, Resolution (1772-1775). In the same oval format is a matching pair of engravings of Cook and Captain James King, a rare depiction of the surviving commander of the third, and ill fated, Pacific journey. They were completed by Francesco Bartolozzi and are based on the painting by voyage artist on the third journey, John Webber.

Webber did not witness the death of Captain Cook at Kealakekua Bay, but his famous depiction of the event was replicated in an etching by Bartolozzi and William Byrne. The Gallery has now secured a rare first issue of the separately issued engraving of this event. The popular European curiosity for the exotic is apparent in this work, as too in the etching of Omai, a Native of Ulaietea, a Tahitian man tagged as the “embodiment of Rousseau’s Noble Savage”. These works create an additional layer of story telling in the Cook experience and are a wonderful compliment to the Gallery’s 2000 purchase.

It is fitting that Mr Oatley, himself an avid sailor, has generously provided funds to purchase additional art works on the life of Captain Cook. This ongoing benefaction from Robert Oatley ensures the National Portrait Gallery’s collection continues to grow and remain at the forefront of exploring and preserving the lives of eminent subjects who have shaped this country.