Familiarising the unfamiliar

Throughout the current Maritime Lecture Series: Art and Science of Exploration  one of the themes that keeps cropping up is how the artists on all three of Cook’s voyages made sense of the new and unfamiliar experiences, by filtering them through what was familiar to them.

Stubb’s dingo from 1772, for example, actually goes under the title ‘Portrait of a large dog’ because there wasn’t the vocabulary to describe it in any other way. Stubbs had also never seen a dingo before he painted it, so the painting hanging in the Queen’s House was created entirely from description. The result is that the painting looks more like the dogs Stubbs would be used to in England than the Dingo we would now expect.

Portrait of a large dog (Dingo) 1772 by George Stubbs. ZBA5755

The kangaroo posed a bit more a problem, being variously described as ‘a kind of greyhound’, a ‘large mouse’ and the ‘size and weight of a sheep’. This may seem laughable to us in 2014, but what if this was your first instance of coming across such a creature? What then? How else were you meant to describe it?

The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo) 1772 by George Stubbs. ZBA5754

It wasn’t just the animals that were subject to this: the art that came out of all three of Cook’s voyages also bears the hallmarks of the unfamiliar being filtered through the familiar. Take John Webber’s portrait of Poedua, Daughter of Orio.


Despite the portrait being based on studies completed in Cook’s cabin (while she was held captive as ransom for the return of members of his crew who had absconded), she is surrounded by exotic plants which reflect her ‘otherness’, as do the tattoos on her arms. And yet, when the portrait returned to London and the Royal Academy, visitors would find in the portrait not just the otherness of Polynesians, but also a familiar representation of Venus.

The Death of Captain Cook by Johann Zoffany (1794) also borrows from classical art. Cook himself is in the pose of the Dying Gaul

While the Hawaiian Chief Noo’an, takes on the role of the discus thrower

What is particularly intriguing about this is not that the classical statues are being referenced, but that by using them in this way, Zoffany has placed Cook and Noo’an as equals in the painting.

This method of processing the unfamiliar and the new through what was already familiar and comfortable affected how different groups of people were portrayed. There was a hierarchy of islanders, and those whose values fitted more closely to those of the British, were seen as more developed. Thus, the Tahitians were considered to be the most developed because the scale and pageantry of their war preparations closely mapped onto British values of militarism. This can be seen in Hodges ‘Review of the War Galleys at Tahiti’


The final Maritime Lecture in the series is Thursday 9 October at 11.00.

We will be exploring the relationship between science, art and empire on Saturday 18 October in Science, Voyaging, Art, Empire: Study Day.

Blogpost written by Katherine McAlpine, Public Engagement Officer: Ships, Clocks and Stars