Portrait of Captain James Cook

John Webbercirca 1780

Te Papa

Te Papa
Wellington, New Zealand

This essay originally appeared in New Zealand Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2018).

John Webber was born in London, the son of a Swiss sculptor. He was schooled in Berne and Paris before returning to London in 1775 for further study at the Royal Academy. Although relatively unknown at this time and without influential friends or patrons, Webber’s fate was determined at the Academy’s exhibition the following spring, when his work caught the notice of Daniel Solander, the botanist on Captain James Cook’s first voyage. Solander arranged Webber’s introduction to the Admiralty, and a few months later he was aboard the Resolution as it departed from Plymouth on Cook’s third and final voyage.

This is one of three known portraits of Cook by Webber (a fourth was presented to the Tahitian chief Tu, later Pomare I, at Matavai in 1777, and last recorded by Captain Vancouver when he visited Tahiti in 1798). The others, in the National Portrait Gallery, London, and the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, are dated 1776 and 1782 respectively. Unlike those paintings, the date of Te Papa’s work is uncertain. A romantic but unsubstantiated story claims that it was painted prior to Cook’s departure on his third voyage and given by him to his wife Elizabeth as a going-away present. Given its similarity to the Canberra picture, it seems more likely that it is a posthumous work, memorialising but not idealising Cook, who had been killed in Hawai‘i in 1779. The austere, even forbidding-looking, captain is depicted in his naval uniform, standing on the shore with a telescope in his hand. The painting was certainly in the possession of Elizabeth Cook for a time, though, and in 1829 was given by her to Cook’s nephew, passing to his descendants who sold it in the mid-nineteenth century. The New Zealand government purchased the painting in 1960 from Canon T Harrison Park, of Marton-on-Cleveland, Yorkshire, and it arrived in the country with much fanfare. Cook had travelled, in his own words, ‘farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for a man to go’.1 This portrait — which is in constant demand for international loans — has done the same.

William McAloon

1 Cited in JC Beaglehole (ed.),

The journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery, vol. II : The voyage of the Resolution and Adventure, 1772–1775, Hakluyt Society, London, 1961, p. 322.

<strong>Text originally created for Tūrangawaewae: Art and New Zealand exhibition at Te Papa, March 2018.</strong>

A rare portrait of Captain Cook, gifted to his grieving widow.

Artist John Webber sailed with British explorer James Cook on his third voyage to the Pacific. This portrait is based on studies he made before Cook’s death in Hawai‘i in 1779. It is one of just a handful of images of Cook painted from life, by someone who knew him well.

After the voyage, Webber presented the portrait to Cook’s widow, Elizabeth – apparently at her husband’s wish. It probably offered her little comfort: Cook’s expression is austere, even grim.

He kōwaiwai kiritangata murimate, i peitatia mō te pouaru.

I tonoa pea tēnei kōwaiwai kiritangata o James Cook hei koha mō tana hoa wahine, mō Elizabeth, i te tau 1776. I mate a Cook i Hawai’i i tana haerenga tuatoru ki Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, i mua i te whakatutukitanga o te kōwaiwai kiritangata. I tukuna e te ringatoi, e John Webber, tēnei kōwaiwai kiritangata ki te pouaru a Cook. I ora te pouaru mō te rima tekau mā ono tau whai muri mai i te rironga o Cook.
I tino mōhio a Webber ki a Cook. Ahakoa tērā, ehara te kōwaiwai kiritangata i te mea whakamauru. He aroha-kore he manawa kino te āhua o Cook.


  • Title: Portrait of Captain James Cook
  • Creator: John Webber (artist)
  • Date Created: circa 1780
  • Location: England
  • Physical Dimensions: image: 695mm (width), 1095mm (height)
  • Provenance: Gift of the New Zealand Government, 1960
  • Subject Keywords: Portraits | Explorers | Men | Military uniforms | Telescopes | Captain James Cook
  • Rights: No Known Copyright Restrictions
  • External Link: Te Papa Collections Online
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • Art Genre: portrait
  • Support: canvas
  • Depicted Person: Captain James Cook
  • Registration ID: 1960-0013-1

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