A view of past from unlikely Cook voyager
By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
William Hodges was a particularly intrepid, and particularly ambitious, young man.
This combination of attributes, along with his training under one of the greatest landscape painters of his day, put him in the right place at the right time to embark on a life-changing adventure: accompanying Capt. James Cook on his second Pacific voyage in 1772.
Hodges was just 28 and he got the job quite by accident: A plan by naturalist Sir Joseph Banks to equip HMS Resolution with an extra deck proved so unseaworthy that Cook ordered its removal. Banks quit in a huff, taking his artist with him, and the Admiralty had to find a replacement in a hurry. Hodges was selected.
Now five of Hodges' paintings are in Honolulu, serving as a sort of introduction to the works in the Honolulu Academy of Arts exhibit "Life in the Pacific of the 1700s," an extraordinary collection of gifts and trade objects collected by Cook, on view now through May 14. The paintings are on loan from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, and a private collector in England. Geoff Quilley, curator of maritime art at the National Maritime Museum, accompanied the paintings here and will give a talk tonight on Hodges, an artist whose accomplishments, he says, are underappreciated.
It's a compelling argument Quilley makes as he describes the harsh conditions under which Hodges worked, and what he achieved.
The British Admiralty trained its senior officers in rudimentary drawing and watercolor painting, so as to record landscape profiles and information helpful in navigation and future exploration. But Hodges was the first landscape painter ever to be commissioned for such a voyage.
The British artists Constable and Turner, working in the early 1800s, are usually credited with developing plein air painting — pieces done out of doors. But Hodges was making oil paintings aboard ship and on land almost 50 years beforehand.
Though seemingly everyone else involved with Cook's second voyage recorded their impressions, Hodges didn't leave a journal. Or, says Quilley hopefully, one hasn't yet surfaced. So the constraints under which Hodges operated can only be imagined. "But he was obviously working in very cramped space conditions. It must have been very difficult," Quilley said.
At that time, oil paintings had to be mixed, the pigments ground into a paste-like oil medium. He would have had to keep his paper dry in damp conditions and there's some evidence that he might have run short of supplies — one painting is on what appears to be sailcloth, and a group of works was done in red chalk and pen-and-ink, perhaps because he lacked or was conserving oil paints.
Despite these hardships, said Quilley, "the range of his output is quite astonishing" — watercolors, pen-and-ink work, chalk sketches, oil paintings and then a very large number of oil paintings he produced in the two years after his return.
The plein air work is important from a strictly historical viewpoint because it's less fanciful or reflective than the pieces done back in England. "These are documentary records of the Pacific at that particular period, and therefore, they're unique," Quilley said.
But these pieces were not so often displayed to the European public as the large oils made later, which Quilley describes as "almost philosophical reflections on the experience." These, too, are crucial, Quilley says, because "they are among the first visualizations of the Pacific. (They) were really loaded things and do demonstrate a very particularized, ideological Western view of the Pacific."
In other words, these engravings, seen in the widely distributed books about the voyages and in exhibitions at the Royal Academy, helped viewers begin to form ideas about the Pacific.
It's important to understand that the landscape painting of the day was a fanciful art, full of references to classic mythology and arcadian shepherds in pristine wilderness settings — everything worked through the imagination.
"These are works made by somebody trained in the academic tradition of landscape painting, which had very precise formulae, being confronted with a landscape that no European artist had ever encountered before," Quilley said. "You get a very stark contrast of light and dark. The eradication almost of the horizon at a certain point where the sky merges into the water. You get a sort of cropping effect — no foreground or background quite often. They're almost photographic in composition."
The result is a group of works that is poised between old world and new.
"They're really complicated things. They're not straightforward at all," Quilley said. "They're quite disarming in that respect because they're really incredibly beautiful."
Reach Wanda A. Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.