Oil on board
200 x 250mm
The following text comes from the catalogue for the exhibition Tirohanga Whānui.
This small painting is believed to be the first oil painting ever made in Aotearoa.
It was most likely painted en plein air from the deck of Captain James Cook’s ship, the Resolution, which arrived at Dusky Bay on 25 March 1773 on his second voyage to Aotearoa. On finding their first anchorage unsuitable, Cook and his first lieutenant, Richard Pickersgill, set out in separate boats to find a better one. The following day, the sloop was moved over to a small creek where it was moored head and stern close to the shore of what was then named Pickersgill Harbour, on the southeastern side of the bay. Here, the Resolution was to remain until 11 May.
Bush was cleared to make an observatory and a forge for ironwork. Tents were set up for sail makers. Even a small brewery was established, using cauldrons in which local plants were boiled to make a palatable drink for the labourers. Boats were sent out on daily fishing expeditions and to carry out the accurate charting of the Sound.
The work is painted on a piece of pine, probably an off-cut from the ship’s carpenter’s workshop. It is testimony to what Johann Reinhold Forster, the ship’s pastor and a naturalist described as the flourishing of the polite arts in Dusky Bay: ‘The romantic prospects of this shaggy country lived on the canvas in the glowing tints of nature, who was amazed to see herself so closely copied.’
The artist William Hodges had been engaged by Cook to make topographical records of places visited. In this work, he has done much more than that. While the foreground is minutely detailed and finished, the depiction of the hills and mountains of the middle ground as well as the sky is much freer. The agitated treatment of the clouds and the freedom of painterly brushstrokes with which the mountains are depicted seem to anticipate the naturalism of later artists such as John Constable.
The tiny brushstrokes used to delineate so precisely the Māori figures in the right foreground and the sailing boat to the left of the island show that this is a finished painting made on the spot, not a mere sketch.
The red-jacketed figure standing and pointing in the largest boat is unlikely to be a Māori chief wearing a coat given by Cook, as had earlier been believed. It is more probably Pickersgill, directing an exploratory expedition.
Tirohanga Whānui: Views from the Past, Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi, 15 April to 15 September 2017