Skip to main content

'The portraits of Captain Cook'

An interview with Betty Churcher

Betty Churcher on Captain Cook
Video: 3 minutes

Betty Churcher describes the creation of the portrait of Captain James Cook in the National Portrait Gallery.

This video was produced with funds donated by Tim Fairfax AC.

I'm fascinated by Cook the man. You know, he was such an extraordinary man. He had orders from the admiralty to be courteous and kind to the people of the South Pacific. Take their land by all means, but be polite about it. And by nature he was a very courteous, thoughtful, kind man.

Webber was a young man, he was only about 24 when he was appointed. He did three paintings from life on that trip, before Cook's fatal end. Cook wanted one of them to go to his wife. So when Webber returned in late, I think it was about November of 1780, he has these two portraits. But Mrs Cook looks at them and says "No, I can't see my kind and considerate husband there" and so poor Webber, very disappointed, but he takes his two portraits, the rejected ones, and from those two, he paints this portrait, for Mrs Cook. And she loved it. It made him look tall, it made him look elegant. It made him a gentleman.

Because he was in his studio in London he could get back properly, he could paint. And he could try and inject into that portrait all that he knew. He'd spent nearly two years in very close contact with this man, so he knew him well. He wanted to bring those two portraits together, in this one. And it's the last 18th-century portrait of Cook, in existence.