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Alexander SHAW


  • active England as of c.1783

Alexander SHAW


  • active England as of c.1783

A catalogue of the different specimens of cloth collected in the three voyages of Captain Cook. To the southern hemisphere: with a particular account of the manner of the manufacturing the same in the various islands of the south seas: partly extracted from Mr. Anderson and Reinhold Forster's observations. And the verbal account of some of the most knowing of the navigators: with some anecdotes that happened to them among the natives. 1787 - 1805 Description: comprises 56 original specimens of tapa cloth on 28 leaves within contemporary sheep-backed marbled boards and flat spine with gilt bands

Collection Title: Shaw, Alexander. 'A catalogue of the different specimens of cloth collected in the three voyages of Captain Cook...' London: Alexander Shaw, 1787.
Place made: London, Greater London, England
Materials & Technique: books, illustrated books, ink; paper; tapa cloth letterpress text, with sheets of tapa cloth bound or affixed to sheets of blank paper Support: paper
Edition State: published state
Impression: undesignated impression as issued
Edition: print run of at least 60

Primary Insc: no inscriptions.
Secondary Insc: no inscriptions.
Tertiary Insc: no inscriptions.
Dimensions: book (closed) 22.5 h x 16.1 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2014
Accession No: NGA 2014.985
  • At auction, Sotheby's, London, 13 July 1976, lot 268.
  • Collection of Franklin Brooke-Hitching.
  • Purchased by the National Gallery of Australia, from 'Exploration and discovery 1576-1939: The library of Franklin Brooke-Hitching', London: Sotheby's, 27 March 2014, lot 317 (illustrated)

The possibility of the National Gallery of Australia ever acquiring works collected during Captain James Cook’s voyages to Australia and the Pacific is almost unthinkable. But a copy of the book A catalogue of the different specimens of cloth collected in the three voyages of Captain Cook is just such a rare opportunity. This book contains 56 original examples of tapa cloth collected on the Cook expedition, of which nine are full-page specimens.

On his third voyage to the southern hemisphere in 1776–79 Cook travelled extensively in the Pacific Ocean, where lengths of highly decorated tapa cloth were collected from Tongatabu, Tahiti and the Hawaiian islands. After the death of Cook and the expedition’s return to London, this cloth became the property of retired army officer and entrepreneur, Alexander Shaw.

Shaw cut the tapa cloth into small pieces, which he then had mounted and bound with descriptive text on the production and use of tapa, information gained from those who had accompanied Cook on the voyage. In his preface dated 1787 he states that these books ‘are only select specimens for a few friends’. This may be so, but recent scholarship relating to this publication records about 60 copies, most of which are now in public collections. Furthermore, watermarks on the paper in these books ocassionally have dates of 1802 or 1805. One presumes that demand must have outstripped the number originally published and that Shaw issued more books over the years. At some stage his initial supply of tapa cloth began to run out and it seems that Shaw had access to cloth that was bought to England from other Pacific voyages.

The complexity of the publishing history of the book is acknowledged in The Hawaiian National Bibliography, which describes the publication as:

One of the great curiosities resulting from Cook’s Third Voyage. This very rare book, of which no two copies are alike, not only contains dateable Hawaiian and other Pacific kapa, or bark cloth, specimens but has in its text information on their manufacture, anecdotal comments on how and where the sample pieces were obtained, and occasional notes on the size of the sheet from which each was cut.

The Gallery’s copy was formerly in the collection of the library of Franklin Brooke-Hitching, who in the twentieth century formed one of the greatest private collections relating to global exploration and discovery. His library was distinguished by the superlative quality of its contents. The Shaw publication was one such exceptional example surviving in its original marbled boards binding. In his text Shaw describes the 33 examples of tapa which made up the original publication. This copy has 56 pieces of cloth, making it one of the most substantial volumes produced. It is also distinguished by having nine full-page examples of tapa and relatively few small strips. Unfortunately the text descriptions do not equate with the samples in the Gallery’s copy, and it will take further research to identify the place of production for each of the pieces.

The acquisition of this book coincided with the planning of the exhibition Atua: sacred gods from Polynesia, where it was displayed along with engravings from another recent acquisition, the extra-illustrated copy of Cook’s first, second and third voyages assembled by Charles Hoare in the late 1700s. Michael Gunn, the Gallery’s Senior Curator of Pacific Arts and the curator of Atua, notes:

Eighteenth century tapa from Hawai’i, Tahiti and Tonga is now almost impossible to find, for the few surviving works are closely guarded. Hawaiian tapa (kapa) from this period is very distinctive, often featuring geometrical forms painted in red on thin tissue. Tahitian tapa (ahu) was very soft, with a texture like the very finest muslin. The most beautiful were painted with fern and moss motifs achieved by dipping the plant in dye and pressing it on the soft felted tapa. Tongan tapa (ngatu) is still produced today, and the eighteenth century antecedents cast a very illustrative light on more recent work.

On completion of the Atua: sacred gods of Polynesia tour the Gallery’s copy of A catalogue of the different specimens of cloth collected in the three voyages of Captain Cook will be on display in the Polynesian Gallery and the pages will be regularly turned to reveal the next wonderful piece of tapa cloth.

Roger Butler Senior Curator, Australian Prints, Posters and Illustrated Books

in artonview, issue 79, Spring 2014