A fine portrait with a hidden message
Take a close look.
He appears to be resting his elbow on something – perhaps a rock – while gesturing to the ground. Could he be alluding to another country for the British Empire to colonise? Perhaps he’s pointing to the Australian landmass he claimed for Britain, beneath his feet on the other side of the world?
Perhaps, but more to the point, look closely at what’s actually in that corner of this portrait.
This portrait is something of an obituary, made three years after Cook's death in Hawaii. The subject was not around to comment on his depiction; it was entirely up to the artist John Webber.
If you compare this portrait to Webber’s other painting of Cook, can you see how different the hands are?
So there you have it. Not only is this a declaration of the contributions of a significant individual, it’s also an advertisement for the services of the artist. Portrait commissions have long been lucrative income streams for artists. By emphasising the artist’s identity on the portrait of such a renowned figure, Webber made a conspicuous professional statement.
This exhibit is based on a story by Sam Bowker, former learning facilitator at the National Portrait Gallery.