Among my primary interests are art, history and maps. The current exhibition at the British Library about the voyages of James Cook (above) was always going to be a draw. First to clear up a misconception. He was called Captain because he was in charge of the ship but for the first voyage James Cook was a lieutenant and the second he was a commander. This is just one of the mildly confusing traditions of the royal navy.
He undertook three voyages, the first to Tahitti, New Zealand and Australia, the second to the antarctic circle and the third to find the legendary north west passage over the top of America. Artists accompanied all three voyages and the exhibition is repleat with maps, charts, drawings and paintings.
The first voyage was to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus, one of the first stops was at Tierra del Feugo, off the south coast of South America and the resident artist produced a drawing of this (above).
There is a sketchbook of the artist (who on the first voyage was Joseph Banks) (above) and it would seem his practice was to sketch and then on board ship, but also after their return to England, to work these up into fuller drawings and paintings. These of course all have the issue of imposing the European ideal of painting onto the scenes.
Like so. This brings me on neatly to one of the most interesting characters revealed in the exhibition, a Tahitian by the name of Tupaia. Tupaia was possibly some kind of Tahitian priest, no one is exactly sure. What is known is that he joined the exhibition, and stayed with it until Batavia where he died of disease.
Perhaps even more interesting is that he then went onto record illustrations of later events in the voyage such as the one above left showing Joseph Banks trading with a Maori on New Zealand. Tupaia acted as a translator between the expedition and the Maori and it is only thanks to Joseph Bank's diary that we know it is Tupaia who produced these drawings. Then you have a later illustration of a the expedition meeting Australian Aboriginals.
Maps and diaries abound in the exhibition. You have the log books and James Cook's diaries (like the one above left) from all three voyages. A principle purpose of the voyages was also to provide accurate charts so you also have the exquisite diagrams like the one of New Zealand (above right) which proved that it was not part of a Southern Continent but a separate Island (proved it that is to the Europeans, I imagine the Maori already knew).
The exhibition then moves onto Australia and the much discussed and controversial encounter between Cook and the Aboriginals. The first Voyage was the most interesting but for all of them the curators have managed to convey the sense of wonder that these discoveries and encounters must have brought about. Particularly thrilling is being able to read the original diaries and journals of these people.
There are drawings of plants (and plant samples) along with landscapes (like the one above). There are no written records from the other side of these encounters so these are presented instead by a recounting of the stories passed down amongst the First People and shown in videos. These videos are of variable quality and are just not as gripping as the contemporary artifacts.
The third Voyage involved a trip to find the North West passage and included a call into Nootka Sound (above which TV viewers may remember from the patchy Taboo).
Cook had established good relations (or at least so was thought) with the inhabitants of Hawaii. There is a picture (above) of Cook attending a feast with them. He called at Hawaii on the way out and then went to winter there before returning to the North. At least that was the plan. In event much disputed some kind of argument broke out on the beach between the Hawaiians and Cook's men and in the ensuing fight, Cook was killed.
There is much then to like about this show. It is historically interesting but also artistically so. There is much to engage with from any angle. I am really pleased I went.
Incidentally, if you do go, leave yourself time to go round the Treasures of the British Library afterwards. It is very much worth it.
I shall end on some self promotion. I have a show starting Wednesday 6th June at the Hoxton Cabin. Come along. Details below
William John Mackenzie
I am an artist with a specialism in landscapes and still life. My contact details are here.