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James COOK

Middlesbrough, Yorkshire, England 1728 – Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii 1779

Cook's first, second and third voyages 1773 -1784 Description: comprises descriptions of the first, second and third voyages in eight volumes, and an atlas volume of charts and engravings compiled by Charles Hoare.
Place made: London, Greater London, England
Materials & Technique: prints, cardboard; ink; leather; paper engravings; letterpres Support: cardboard; paper
Edition State: published state
Impression: undesignated impression as issued
Edition: print run unknown
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2013
Accession No: NGA 2013.4129.1-9

  • Collection of Charles Hoare (1767-1851) of Luscombe, Devon, England, grandson of Henry Hoare of Stourhead, Wiltshire and a partner in the family bank Hoare & Co. [Bookplate]
  • ? Hoare family library, Stourhead, Wiltshire
  • Unknown collection.
  • Collection of John D. Altmann (1919-1996).
  • At auction, 'Rare books and manuscripts', Melbourne: Christie's Australia, 28 November 1996, lot626 (ill.) estimate $30-40,000.
  • With Hordern House Rare Books, Sydney.
  • Purchased by the National Gallery of Australia, from Hordern House Rare Books, Sydney, 2013.

At a time when little was known about the Pacific Ocean, British naval captain James Cook undertook to explore it in three voyages between 1768 and 1779. Earlier Medieval and Renaissance maps portrayed strange creatures living in uncharted southern seas. Some believed in the existence of a far-flung Arcadia, rich in trade goods and mineral wealth. Seventeenth-century maps drawn by the Dutch without the benefit of circumnavigation depicted the east coast of New Holland stretching infinitely into the wilds of the Tasman Sea. The Oceanic region may have been present in the European imagination but it was Cook who helped to place it into the Western realm of actuality.

Cook’s accounts of his three voyages were first published by London firm W Strahan and T Cadell. Printed between 1773 and 1784, the volumes featured an exquisite series of engravings made after work produced by artists who accompanied Cook on his voyages, including Sydney Parkinson, William Hodges and John Webber.

The National Gallery of Australia has recently acquired an exceptional set of Cook’s voyages, assembled in the late eighteenth century by astute collector Charles Hoare. Hoare was part of the affluent banking family whose Palladian mansion, Stourhead, is now overseen by the British National Trust. The set appears to have been sold in the 1880s, when Hoare’s descendants faced financial difficulty.

Spanning nine volumes bound in Russia leather and embellished with gilt anchors and rosettes, the jewel of the set is an atlas volume in which Hoare compiled scarce and unpublished supplementary images in addition to engravings removed from the original published set. A sophisticated example of ‘extra collecting’ , Hoare’s preference for studies and trial proofs entailed that the volume is not only a pictorial account of Cook’s voyages but also an art historical document that details the production of images.

The set abounds with art of exceptional rarity. An examination of plates from the second voyage reveals eighteen trial engravings from the sought-after ‘Admiralty’ issue, which was presented to influential naval officials in advance of the official account.

A mezzotint engraving of the New Zealand poa bird is one of few known examples in the world. Made by British printmaker Robert Laurie, it was used to demonstrate early advances in colour printing to the Royal Society in 1776.

An exquisite proof of Omai, a native of Ulaiete 1774 is among the grandest statements of Cook voyage art. Standing in a pose of elegant contrapposto, Omai is fine-featured, his countenance composed and assured. He is the embodiment of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ and, unlike later portrayals of Pacific Islanders, is the subject of reverence rather than parody or fear.

The death of Cook 1785, an engraving by Francesco Bartolozzi after John Webber, is the most famous of all eighteenth-century attempts to portray the tragic fray between Cook’s party and the natives of Hawaii. The engraving captures the frenzied final moments of Cook’s life as a mass of figures battle on the shores of Kealakekua Bay. A great cloud of gunpowder deflects attention from the moment in which Cook ultimately meets his death, the explicit details of which were the cause of sustained speculation in eighteenth-century Britain.

A magnificent acquisition, this set of Cook’s voyages will lend insight into numerous exploration-era works of art in the Gallery’s collection, many of which were influenced by these seminal engravings.

Elspeth Pitt Assistant Curator, Australian Prints and Drawings

in artonview, issue 76, Summer 2013