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17 November 2021

How William Hodges captured Captain Cook’s adventures

The official artist attached to Cook’s second expedition was never meant to be on board.

By Michael Prodger

William Hodges was the artist who first acquainted the European public with the wonders and beauties of the South Sea Islands. His paintings showed visions of spectacular peaks, dense forests, long beaches and fecund nature – an Edenic realm inhabited by tattooed people who were the living embodiment of the age’s sentimental idea of the “noble savage”. However, that he was able to paint Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands, Tonga, the fjordlands of New Zealand and other such impossibly exotic places was entirely accidental.

Hodges (1744-97) saw these new lands in his role as the official artist attached to Captain Cook’s second expedition (1772-75), but he wasn’t initially supposed to be on board. The botanist Joseph Banks had accompanied Cook on his first voyage and was due to join the second with a retinue that included the Royal Academician Johann Zoffany. In accordance with his wishes, an extra deck was built on Cook’s boat, the Resolution, to house the assorted scientists and observers but it made the vessel unseaworthy and was removed: without suitable accommodation Banks and his acolytes refused to join the expedition.

A new team that included the astronomer William Wales and the naturalist Johann Reinhold Foster, and his son Georg, was drafted in. The Admiralty informed Cook, somewhat curtly, that “we have engaged Mr William Hodges, a Landskip Painter, to proceed in his Majesty’s Sloop under your Command on her present intended Voyage in order to make Drawings and Paintings as may be proper to give a more perfect idea thereof than can be formed from written descriptions only”. In the end, he gave a vivid if less than perfect idea of what he saw. Hodges nevertheless became the first artist to journey through the Antarctic ice, along the Polynesian beaches and up to the monolithic stone heads of Easter Island.

[See also: Hogarth and the Continent]

Hodges, the son of a London blacksmith, first came to notice as a “Landskip Painter” as the assistant to Richard Wilson, the pre-eminent practitioner of the time. As an errand boy for Shipley’s drawing school he picked up enough skills for Wilson to notice him and take him under his tutelage, and over the course of seven years in Wilson’s studio he came to assimilate his master’s idealising style so closely that their works can be near indistinguishable. In 1766, as an accomplished artist, he set out to fashion an independent career, but although he exhibited regularly for the next few years, by the time he joined Cook’s ship his career had failed to take off.

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The expedition was, therefore, both an adventure and an opportunity. As his friend the writer and patron William Hayley put it in clodhopping verse: “To active Hodges, who with zeal sublime,/Pursued the art, he lov’d in every clime;/Who early traversing the globe with Cook,/Painted new life from Nature’s book.” On Hodges’ return to London in July 1775, he was retained by the Admiralty for a further two years – at £250 per annum – to work up his images of this new life. Thirty-five of his sketches, which included portrait drawings of islanders as well as land- and seascapes, were made into prints by some of the best engravers of the day to illustrate Cook’s account of the expedition, A Voyage Towards the South Pole, and Round the World (1777), while he finessed other drawings and watercolours into five large-scale paintings for the Admiralty itself.

The works vary in verisimilitude. Some, such as his portrait of Omai – the first Pacific islander to visit Britain, who charmed London society and was painted by Joshua Reynolds – are true to life, while many of the landscapes show the effects of Wilson’s studio.

Although the engravings and his exhibited paintings were revelatory, they attracted criticism too. Hodges was sometimes found guilty of too stringently applying the decorous rules of Western landscape painting – framing trees, soft light, blue and evanescent distances – to the Pacific realms. Instead of documenting exactly what he encountered, he “improved” his views according to the theories expounded by Edmund Burke in his 1757 A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Hodges’ vistas become hybrid forms that might be termed Pacific picturesque or Polynesian classicism.

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In them, islanders come to resemble displaced Greeks or Romans, while canoes – even war canoes such as those gathered together in War Boats of Tahiti (a sight that left Cook disappointed that he could not stay to witness the battle) – resemble the gondolas of Venice: indeed, one reviewer disparagingly noted how Hodges painted these far-distant islands “in Canaletti’s stil”.

[See also: How Chiura Obata combined the traditions of Japanese and American art]

These traits are evident in this painting, A View of Matavai Bay in the Island of Otaheite [Tahiti], 1776, in the Yale Center for British Art, in which the colouration and mood of Claude’s 17th-century paintings of the roseate skies of the Roman campagna are invoked. This was entirely conscious: in another version of the painting, in the National Maritime Museum, Hodges shows Cook’s ships, the Resolution and Adventure, in place of the distant ceremonial outriggers and with less poetry in the light. So the paintings function as before and after visions of the European incursion – if not of paradise lost, then of paradise discovered.

These are pictures designed to flatter his audience, too, in that they show Britain’s civilising mission. They were perhaps in the mind of the poet Henry James Pye, a friend of Hodges, who wrote in 1783, imploring Europeans: “No more with arms the trembling tribes destroy,/But soft Persuasion’s gentler powers employ,/Till, from her throne barbarian Rudeness hurl’d,/Refinement spread her Empire o’er the world.”

In the years following his return, Hodges exhibited his pictures of the voyage at the Royal Academy, and married his first wife, Martha Nesbit, who would die in childbirth within a year. Her death was one of the reasons he left for India in 1778 under the aegis of the East India Company and Warren Hastings: he was the first professional artist to tour the country. After six years, he returned, built himself a studio in London and remarried. This union too was short-lived; his bride, Lydia Wright, died within months. In 1785 Hodges contracted a third marriage, this time to Anne Mary Carr, a talented pianist.

Although he was elected a member of the Royal Academy in 1789 his career foundered when in 1794 he exhibited privately two large paintings called The Effects of Peace and The Effects of War (both now lost). Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, the second son of George III, saw the pictures and, offended by their seemingly unpatriotic sentiments while Britain was at war with Revolutionary France, ordered the exhibition to be closed. He effectively shut down Hodges’s livelihood in the process.

Hodges sold up and moved to Dartmouth in Devon, where, using the money he had accrued in India, he became partner in a bank. In 1797, however, the ongoing war induced a financial crisis that led to a run on the bank and its collapse. The following day Hodges was found dead from “gout of the stomach”, but suicide from an overdose of the laudanum he used to treat the ailment seems the more likely cause. If so, there was a tragic irony in the painter of the early stirrings of the colonial enterprise dying by one of its most contentious exports.

This article appears in the 17 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy's last stand