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Views in the South Seas, from drawings by the late James Webber (1808)

friendly_islands_2

“Friendly Islands”

A folio of sixteen aquatint plates with fine original hand-colouring, Views in the South Seas is the only colour-plate book relating to James Cook’s voyages.  Coupled with fifteen leaves of descriptive text from the official account of Cook’s third voyage, John Webber’s engraved plates collectively form one of the most vibrant and romantic visual statements of the South Seas, and arguably the most striking publication ever to result from any of Cook’s expeditions.

James (John) Webber was born in London in 1751, the second son of Abraham Weber, a Swiss sculptor, and his Londoner wife Mary Quant. From the age of six, Webber was educated by his aunt in Bern before securing an apprenticeship to Swiss landscape artist and engraver, Johan Ludwig Aberli.  Amongst the first to admire his paintings was naturalist Daniel Solander, who had accompanied Cook and Banks on their first voyage.  Aware that an artist had not yet been selected for Cook’s third voyage, Solander recommended Webber, who was subsequently appointed just days before departure.

plantain_tree_cracatoa_2

“Plantain tree”

As official artist on board HMS Resolution from 1776 to 1780, Webber penned, crayoned and water-coloured his way through the Pacific, producing a large volume of sketches and complete compositions.[1]  Sailing past the Cape of Good Hope, Webber drew landscape and seascape views of New Zealand, Van Diemen’s Land and several Pacific islands, and painted the people, ethnographic objects, plants and animals of those lands, giving them a vibrancy that written description alone could not.[2]  They sailed on to north-west America and Alaska, where Webber continued to record all that he saw by way of chalk, wash, pencil and watercolour, completing a significant number of oil paintings too.  On his return to London, Webber submitted a total of 200 finished works to the Admiralty.  His collection became the most comprehensive record of Pacific sights, and it was from these artworks that the official illustrations for Cook’s third voyage were selected.[3]

Some of the stock from Webber’s Pacific imagery also made its way into a series of soft-ground etchings produced between 1788 and 1792.  These were published posthumously in 1808 as Views in the South Seas by the publishing firm, J. Boydell.  The book consisted of sixteen magnificently hand-coloured plates, mostly of a romantic nature and showcasing a care-free life in the Pacific Isles.  They included views of the Friendly Islands and of New Zealand, Cracatoa [sic], Macao [sic] and Otahaite [sic], to name just a few.  Some argue that the views of the vegetation on Krakatoa and Pulo Condore are the most beautiful aquatints of tropical foliage ever produced.

macao_2

“Macao”

Webber remained interested in Pacific scenery for the rest of his life and his paintings fascinated an audience who had a keen desire for the exotic.  He continued to tour Britain and Europe, drawing landscapes and portraits, and even ventured into the production of stage scenery and costumes for the 1785 London stage spectacle based loosely on Cook’s voyages and on the travels of Omai from the Society Islands.[4]  Weber was among the most travelled artists of his time and his work, from largely unknown parts of the world, was considered factual and reliable, and essentially paved the way for an increasing artistic realism, breaking down the traditional concept of European landscape art.[5]  His Australian work comprised four drawings of Aborigines, plus studies of a possum and lizard drawn during Cook’s stopover at Adventure Bay, Van Diemen’s Land in 1777.

In 1791, just two years before his death, Webber was made a full member of the Royal Academy on the basis of his landscape work – quite a distinction at the time for a landscape painter.  He left behind a considerable fortune, donating generously to his friends and fellow landscape painters, Joseph Farington and Thomas Hearne.  He gave his substantial collection of ethnographica from Cook’s third voyage to the Library of Berne, now housed in the Historisches Museum in Berne.

Views in the South Seas.. is available for viewing in Rare Books & Special Collections at SR/E 919 W37

 

Footnotes:

[1] “Biography of John Webber”, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, accessed online 13 October 2016
http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/Topic/573

[2] Joppien, Rüdiger ,“John Webber”, Design & Art Australia Online, accessed online 13 October 2016
https://www.daao.org.au/bio/john-webber/biography/

[3] Joppien, Rüdiger ,“John Webber”, Design & Art Australia Online, accessed online 13 October 2016
https://www.daao.org.au/bio/john-webber/biography/

[4] “Biography of John Weber”, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, accessed online 15 November 2016
http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/Topic/573

[5] Joppien, Rüdiger ,“John Webber”, Design & Art Australia Online, accessed online 15 November 2016
https://www.daao.org.au/bio/john-webber/biography/

 

Citation:

Views in the South Seas, from drawings by the late James Webber, draftsman on board the Resolution, Captain James Cooke, from the year 1776 to 1780.  With letter-press descriptive of the various scenery etc. James Webber.  London: Boydell and Co., 1808

 

Sources:

“Biography of John Webber”, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, accessed online 13 October 2016
http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/Topic/573

Joppien, Rüdiger ,“John Webber”, Design & Art Australia Online, accessed online 13 October 2016
https://www.daao.org.au/bio/john-webber/biography/

“Views in the South Seas”, Hordern House, accessed online 15 November 2016
http://www.hordern.com/pages/books/4503987/cook-third-voyage-john-webber/views-in-the-south-seas-from-drawings-by-the-late-james-webber-draftsman-on-board-the-resolution

“John Webber 1752-1793”, National Portrait Gallery, accessed online 15 November 2016
http://www.portrait.gov.au/people/john-webber-1752

“Views in the South Seas, from Drawings, by the late James Webber, draftsman on board the Resolution, Captain James Cooke, from the year 1776 to 1780…” SPL Hand Coloured Rare Book Collection, accessed online 15 November 2016
http://www.bobins.splrarebooks.com/collection/view/views-in-the-south-seas-from-drawings-by-the-late-james-webber-draftsman-on

Lee Hayes
January 2017

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