The Hand of Captain Cook

A fine portrait with a hidden message

By National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Portrait of Captain James Cook RN Portrait of Captain James Cook RN by John Webber R.A.National Portrait Gallery


Captain James Cook was a distinctive man – tall, confident, somewhat reserved. Evidently John Webber, the painter, respected Cook's humane and disciplined approach to seafaring. The portrait emphasises willpower, but also suggests lenience and integrity. Would you like to know something else about this portrait and the gestures it embodies?

Check out his hands: one gloved, the other exposed.

Cook wore a glove on his right hand to conceal the scars he'd had since a gunpowder horn he was holding exploded.

His exposed left hand is practically manicured, with clean neat fingernails, long elegant fingers, and not a spot of dirt or a callus from hard manual labour.

And look at that curious gesture. What do you think that is about?

Take a closer 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.

There you go; it’s the artist’s signature!

It was rare for 18th century portraits to display the signature on the front, rather than discreetly on the back.

So here, John Webber was (doubly) making a point!

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.

Credits: Story

This exhibit is based on a story by Sam Bowker, former learning facilitator at the National Portrait Gallery.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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