A Tale of Two Cooks

Last week our Maritime Lecture Series: The Art and Science of Exploration got underway with ‘The pencle* of an able painter’ with our curator of art Dr Katy Barrett.

The Art and Science of Exploration, 1768-80 in the Queen’s House represents the work of artists on all three of Captain Cook’s voyages between 1768 and 1780  and how these artistic works were used in the service of scientific advancement and imperial expansion.

Final shots of 'Art and Science of Exploration' gallery in the Queen's House

The very presence of artists on the first voyage is in fact thanks to Joseph Banks, a key figure in the history of science who Katy has previously written about on this very blog, however, this was so successful that the Admiralty stumped up the cash to include artists on both of Cook’s next two voyages.

Final shots of 'Art and Science of Exploration' gallery in the Queen's House

It wasn’t only artists that Cook carried with him on his second voyage, but the precious cargo of Larcum Kendall’s imitation of John Harrison’s H4 seawatch, K1.

K1 was the first attempt to move beyond the designs of John Harrison which, while brilliant and effective one-offs, were too complex and expensive to reproduce for the entire Naval and mercantile fleets. It is for this reason that portraits of Cook appear in both The Art and Science of Exploration, 1768-80 and Ships, Clocks & Stars. However, on closer inspection the two are rather different.


The Art and Science of Exploration portrait of Cook was painted by William Hodges. It was probably begun at some point during the second voyage (1772-1775), and completed on his return to Britain when he was made a captain. Although Cook is painted wearing his Captain’s uniform, the portrait emphasises his role as a self-made man. His head is unwigged, his hair unpowdered and his eyes hold a look of gritty determination.


The Nathaniel Dance portrait hanging in Ships, Clocks & Stars, however, shows Cook in full dress uniform, with his hair significantly lighter than in the Hodges portrait, although by means of powder or a wig, it is difficult to tell. The Dance portrait is more of an advertisement and a reflection of Cook’s success, with his hand resting over the chart of the South Seas he had created himself. However, it certainly isn’t a portrait of a man resting on his laurels.

This portrait was commissioned by Joseph Banks, and hung in his home in Soho Square, next to the George Stubb’s Kangorou and Dingo, both of which are currently on display in Art and Science of Exploration.


Katy Barrett will be delivering a curator’s tour of Art and Science of Exploration, 1768-1780 as part of  Science, Voyaging, Art, Empire on Saturday 18 October.

Blogpost written by Katherine McAlpine, Public Engagement Officer