Captain Cook's apotheosis
Cook in the Rex Nan Kivell collection
1 February 2017
As the National Library’s Cook and His Voyages appeal passes the mid-point to its target, I took the chance to explore some fascinating Cook treasures from the Rex Nan Kivell Collection, displayed in the Treasures Gallery. The appeal closes on 31 March 2017.
Captain Cook's apotheosis
Now the genius of Britain forbids us to grieve,
Since Cook, ever honor’d, immortal shall live.
Rex Nan Kivell (1898 - 1977) was a great collector, a great storyteller and an endless inventor of his own history. He crafted stories to influence how those receiving them thought about him and about his remarkable collection. One of his signal acquisitions, George Carter’s expansive 1781 painting of the Death of Captain Cook in Hawaii, speaks eloquently to his capacity for imagining events and retelling them. In his brief 1970 oral history recording, held in the collection, he tells the tale of acquiring this magnum opus – for him it was ‘NK2’ – the second item he listed in his huge collection catalogue. He says, “The large Carter painting of the death of Cook was bought at Christie's during an air raid. I was sorry for Lord Crawford who was selling it. But on the warning going the sale room emptied. And the auctioneer asked those remaining if he would postpone the sale. I said, 'No'. And so it was almost like bidding against myself to secure it. What a grand painting it is too.” One can imagine the drama of the sale interrupted by the startling siren and Nan Kivell’s keen determination to secure the huge oil painting. No doubt thinking to himself, ‘I must keep bidding at all costs to get this magnificent trophy and a bargain to boot!’ For him, it was a central and important work, a cornerstone in his obsessive attempt to document Pacific exploration and its dramatic narratives in picture, print and artefact form.
I found on closer inspection that, perhaps predictably, the story isn’t true. Nan Kivell didn’t acquire it during the Blitz at Christie’s London for a song. Instead, it turns out that he must have bought it after the war in London. A dealer named Vokins, purchased the painting in October 1946 for 100 guineas and presumably sold it on to Nan Kivell at a profit soon afterwards. It’s still a great story though and illustrative of the lengths he would go to, to spice up a story. A huge Cook fan, Nan Kivell also claimed to have acquired more than 80 portraits of Cook and he listed them in his huge book Portraits of the Famous and Infamous (1974). Some of these portraits went on display for an exhibition in 2015 here at the Library.
The painting is now a central focus in the Treasures Gallery where it has been displayed since the gallery’s opening five years ago and bookends Cook’s exploits which are only really beginning as he described them in MS1, his handwritten Endeavour journal account.
MS1 is displayed directly below the large oil. Uniquely, here in one place, we can witness Cook’s first great Pacific adventure, ‘botanising’ with Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, surviving scurvy, skirmishes, dysentery, malaria and shipwreck and we can read his descriptions of interactions with the indigenous peoples encountered. This can all be visually contrasted with Carter’s heroic rendering of Cook’s last moments on Kealakekua Beach in Hawaii on 14 February 1779.
Cook’s temperamental shift in handling interactions with indigenous people of course was to contribute to his untimely demise. It was a demise that attracted huge attention and an outpouring of grief in Britain. His fellow countrymen couldn’t believe that their greatest navigator and explorer could be cut off in his prime by ‘heathens’ in an area which he had only just ‘discovered.’ His exploits were memorialised in different ways, in print, image, object and in performance. Nan Kivell collected aspects of them all.
Alongside MS1 we can see The Apotheosis of Captain Cook, an engraved image which imagines Cook ascending heavenwards. The image was created by Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg from a drawing by John Webber, the artist on Cook’s final voyage and then was engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi. De Loutherbourg, the Franco-British painter, alchemist, occultist and theatrical innovator designed the sensational blockbuster pantomime production Omai: Or, a Trip Round the World, which opened to acclaim in Covent Garden in December 1785. During the final scene of this ground-breaking multimedia event Captain Cook was seen carried heavenward, heralded by Britannia and Fame, in a large oil painting. The print in the gallery is a later and smaller version of this scene and probably commemorates Webber’s death in 1793. The apotheosis relates to the evocation in the Carter painting of the ‘scene of miserable confusion’ which attended Cook’s brutal death, surrounded by blood, musket smoke and the crew’s anguish. (It is worth noting that the Library also holds 18 of De Loutherbourg’s watercolour costume designs based on Webber’s works for the Omai pantomime.)
Adjacent to this showcase is a framed playbill also collected by Nan Kivell. It is from the New Theatre Royal, Edinburgh for performances including the Grand serious pantomime of Captain Cook, held on Saturday 12 May 1810. Such was the interest in Cook’s life and death as he made the translation in the public mind from warrior to the peaceful conqueror of the Pacific, that similar productions were staged at theatres around Britain over the years following his death. This one was more than three decades later and strayed even further from the truth of the original Cook story, and was produced in Scotland.
Nan Kivell also collected, and we have on display, Cook’s bamboo Walking cane. Until recently also we had a box of instruments said to have belonged to the navigator along with the Church of England Book of Common Prayer, given to Frances Wardale by her cousin James Cook, a Wedgwood portrait medallion of Captain Cook and a number of celebratory medals struck to honour Cook for various achievements on display. All were acquired by Nan Kivell.
These objects were removed recently and were replaced with a remarkable tapa or barkcloth cloth book assembled by the Scottish antiquarian Alexander Shaw in the late 1780s. These beautiful volumes gave British bibliophiles access to the extraordinary range of tapa cloth produced for symbolic and utilitarian purposes throughout the Pacific. This cultural production was much commented upon by Cook and his contemporaries in their journals and in published accounts, and was collected widely by them. On their return to England tapa cloth pieces, some of which measured many square metres, were collected by Shaw and substantially cut down to feature in the quarto-sized books. Nan Kivell collected two of these rare and very prized compendiums of bark cloth and valued them very highly for their exquisite aesthetic charms and also for their cultural significance and for their connection with the most celebrated Pacific voyager, Captain James Cook.
The Cook display in the Treasures Gallery finishes with two significant oil portraits of memorable Cook associates. These important works depicting Captain John Gore 1780 and Captain James King 1782 were both created by Webber, one of Nan Kivell’s favourite painters, an artist he collected in considerable depth. It is interesting to note that Webber’s name embellishes the spine of the volume teetering on top of a pile of books illustrated in Nan Kivell’s distinctive and elegant bookplate. The indefatigable collector also acquired an example of Cook’s bookplate featuring his unique coat of arms which was awarded to his family by George III in 1785. Significantly, this was the only British coat of arms to be issued posthumously.
However, to take us back to Hawaii and to finish this overview of some of the Cookiana held by Nan Kivell and displayed as treasures in our wonderful gallery, I will deal with one final Webber painting. A large and commanding oil entitled, A chief of the Sandwich Islands (currently on display at the National Gallery of Australia) was chosen with symbolic importance by Nan Kivell to be number ‘NK1’ in his expansive catalogue list which finally ran to 11,492 listings. This important painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1787 with the title 'A chief of the Sandwich Islands leading his party to battle'.
The Chief, wears a red helmet, a feathered cloak and a maro, a piece of kapa (bark cloth) wrapped around the waist and thighs. He fatefully holds a sharpened 'black wood' spear commented upon by Cook in his journal and gestures towards a battle scene in the background. These would seem to be references to Cook meeting his end on the beach of Kealakekua Bay on Valentine’s Day 1779. So, both NK1 and NK2, amongst Nan Kivell’s most prized possessions, refer to Cook’s demise on the fateful shore of Hawaii and both have enlivened the rich display surrounding Cook’s exploits in our remarkable Treasures Gallery. I think the collector would be very pleased to see how many of his Cook acquisitions have contributed to us telling the story of the life and adventures of arguably the greatest British mariner.