The Art and Science of Exploration, 1768-80

It’s been a busy couple of months here at the National Maritime Museum. We’ve been refurbishing rooms at the centre of the Queen’s House ready for the first outing of the Stubbs kangaroo and dingo. Our new exhibition The Art and Science of Exploration, 1768-80 is the first stage on the Travellers’ Tails programme as well as being part of our Longitude Season. It opened on 7 August and will run until July 2015, with the Stubbs on view until January.

We’ve spent a couple of months refurbishing the rooms, opening up original windows that had been boarded over, and using historic colour palettes to give the room a feel of the Queen’s House’s heyday in the 17th century. We hope you’ll agree that the rooms look fabulous.

The central room of the exhibition, showing the newly opened windows and new colour palette

The central room of the exhibition, showing the newly opened windows and new colour palette

Of course, that is down to the art on display as much as, indeed more so than, the room refurbishment. Acquiring the Stubbs paintings last year gave us the perfect opportunity to tell the story of art produced during and in response to Captain Cook’s three voyages of discovery. Stubbs painted the kangaroo and dingo as a commission from Joseph Banks, the gentleman-naturalist who accompanied the first voyage, but Banks also took artists with him.

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The paintings before install

The paintings before install

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The paintings after install

The paintings after install

As part of the display, we have loans from the Natural History Museum of delicate botanical drawings produced by Sydney Parkinson at Endeavour River in Australia (where the kangaroo was shot). Although Parkinson died on the return voyage, Banks then employed a team of artists to turn his drawings into watercolours and engravings. The NHM have lent as a beautiful example of each ‘run’ for a specimen drawing, connecting to the 20th-century colour engravings from Banks’ work that we have.

I love these engravings because we are able to tell the complex production history of the object, as well as the story that they tell of the dangers of being an exploration artist. As part of the exhibition narrative as a whole, they show perfectly how these artists were making accurate scientific records as well as artistic responses, and how the images they produced would influence forever how the European public saw the Pacific.

The paintings being installed and having their frames checked

The paintings being installed and having their frames checked

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The exhibition also features art from the second voyages by William Hodges and from the third voyage by John Webber. After the clear success of the artists employed by Banks on the first voyage, the Admiralty employed artists officially as part of Cook’s crew. Both Hodges and Webber produced extraordinary landscapes, sensitive portraits both of the crew and of Pacific islanders, and scenes of encounter, both friendly and hostile. There’s far more to say about these complex images than I can do justice in a blog post, or indeed in an object label. So we need you to join the conversation, give us your views and ideas, and most importantly visit the exhibition!

Katy Barrett
Curator of Art, pre-1800 and Co-curator of ‘The Art & Science of Exploration’ exhibition