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. It has been suggested 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 — a romantic but unsubstantiated story. Given its similarity to the Canberra picture, it seems likely that this is also a posthumous work, memorialising but not yet idealising Cook, who is shown in three-quarter length, standing on the shore in his naval uniform, 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 descendents 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 The same might be said for Cook’s myth, aspects of which have come to permeate this portrait, and which followed his journey.
This essay appears in Art at Te Papa, (Te Papa Press, 2009).
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.