Whitby lands rare collection of drawings from Cook's last voyage

  • 1 June 2007

The Art Fund has helped the Captain Cook Memorial Museum to buy a rare set of drawings of the natives of Kamchatka - one of the most remote regions in the world - by the official artist on Captain Cook's final Voyage.

The collection of 18th century drawings by John Webber, official artist on Captain Cook’s Third – and last – Voyage were purchased for £241,971 with the help of a £50,000 Art Fund grant. Additional funding came from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The drawings were sold overseas 75 years ago, and have been seen in the UK only rarely since. Bought from an American private collector, the series was the largest holding of original Cook voyage material to remain in private ownership.

Cook’s Third Voyage lasted over four years, from 1776-1780, and during this time attempts were made to find a North West passage through the Bering Straits between what is now North East Russia and Alaska. This was the first time that a British expedition had crossed the Arctic Circle on the Bering Straits side, and that people and places in these far northern latitudes were recorded by an artist.

This set of drawings was executed in 1779 during two visits to Avancha Bay, Kamchatka, and were the first representations by a European artist of Kamchatka and its peoples. They show a variety of people - both male and female - of differing ages. Some are detailed and sensitive studies of the faces of his subjects, while others are more concerned with their costume. One image shows the interior of a summer dwelling.

Well-known naturalist Sir David Attenborough, an expert on Cook’s Voyages, commented on the drawings. ‘Webber’s drawings are extraordinary, and not simply because they were created during what was to be Cook’s last great voyage of exploration. They show a humanity and sympathy with the Kamchatkans as individuals, rather than simply depicting them as specimens of a previously unknown people. They have a unique importance as records of an indigenous culture at a time when they had had little contact with others.’

The son of a Swiss sculptor who had settled in London, John Webber RA (1751-1793) was engaged in 1776 to sail on the voyage as ‘Draughtsman and Lanskip Painter’. The work he produced on the voyage laid the foundation for his reputation - he was to continue to travel and exhibit both voyage pictures and topographical scenes, and his artistic career was to remain entwined with the Pacific voyages of Cook.

The drawings are now on display at the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby.

Related Links

Captain Cook Memorial Museum