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Portrait of Captain James Cook RN
, 1782

by John Webber

oil on canvas (frame: 140.0 x 116.2 cm, support: 114.3 x 89.7 cm)

James Cook (1728–1779), amongst the greatest of all maritime explorers, closed the yawning gap in the map of New Holland when he sailed up its eastern seaboard between April and August 1770. On the first of his three voyages of discovery in the Pacific he made meticulous charts of the bays, rivers and islands he passed, and a great number of places in eastern Australia are still known by the names he gave them that fateful autumn and winter. Before the Endeavour sailed away, he took possession of the entire east coast, which he named New South Wales, in the name of His Majesty, King George the Third. Cook was almost continually at sea between 1768 and 1779, scrutinising vast areas that had previously been only tentatively investigated, and charting them with extraordinary accuracy. Accounts produced from his voyages provided Europeans with their first glimpse of the culture, wildlife and geography of lands as diverse as Tahiti and Alaska, and as a result of measures he took to raise standards of hygiene and nutrition on board his ships, there was an appreciable improvement in the health of future British seamen. Cook was killed at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, on 14 February 1779, after having left and then returned to make essential repairs.

This is one of three surviving portraits of Cook by John Webber RA (c. 1752-1793). London-born Webber was apprenticed in 1767 to the Swiss landscape artist Johann Aberli, with whom he spent three years before continuing his studies in Paris. He returned to London at 24, and was admitted to study at the Royal Academy, where he first exhibited in 1776. Daniel Solander, the Swedish naturalist who sailed on the Endeavour with Cook and Banks, admired Webber's works at this first exhibition. Knowing that no official artist had been appointed for Cook's imminent voyage, he recommended Webber. It was Webber's job to make drawings and paintings of people and objects encountered on the voyage of the Resolution; to 'observe the genius, temper, disposition of the natives… showing them every kind of civility and regard'. On this voyage first European contact was established with Hawaiian and British Columbian Indigenous people, and the Resolution's crew were amongst the first Europeans to meet the original inhabitants of Alaska and Kamchatka. The illustrations Webber made were included in the three- volume official record of the voyage, and boosted its commercial success. In London, Webber was often visited by people keen to hear tales of the tragic journey and to see his drawings and curiosities. He exhibited works relating to the expedition at the Royal Academy, and made a modest income from reworking drawings for sale. In his posthumous portrait of Cook, Webber depicted him in the glove he customarily wore to conceal the scars from an injury he sustained in North America in 1764, when a horn of powder he was holding exploded.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Purchased 2000 by the Commonwealth Government with the generous assistance of Robert Oatley AO and John Schaeffer AO
Accession number: 2000.25