Object of the month: The first kangaroo in western art

Published 7 April 2016

We take a closer look at George Stubbs’s The Kongouro from New Holland (The Kangaroo) which is currently on display at the Horniman Museum.

Australia is an all-too-familiar place now, but in 18th-century Britain it was exotic and unknown. In 1772, George Stubbs captured the mystique of the country perfectly in his painting The Kongouro from New Holland. Created following Captain Cook’s historic first voyage to the continent, the work was the first depiction of the kangaroo in western art.

Cook’s ‘first voyage of discovery’ on HMS Endeavour was an extraordinary achievement with a huge historical impact. Lasting three years (1768-71), it was the first British voyage devoted exclusively to scientific discovery. Some measure of its ambition can be taken from NASA’s adoption of the name Endeavour for its fifth space shuttle. In the late 18th century, Australia was an equally unknown and obscure world.

The Kongouro from New Holland was commissioned by the affluent amateur naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, who accompanied Cook on Endeavour. Banks was determined to establish his reputation as a serious scientist. His decision to involve Stubbs is testimony to the artist’s reputation as the leading animal painter in Britain, and to the importance that Banks attached to the kangaroo as an example of Australian wildlife.

The Kongouro would be one of two paintings that Stubbs did not paint from live subjects. Instead, he had to rely on Banks’s descriptions, a few rough sketches, and a kangaroo skin which Stubbs either stuffed or inflated to gain a better understanding of the animal.

The result was a painting that went viral. Thomas Bewick used it as inspiration for an engraving of a kangaroo that appeared in his book, A General History of Quadrupeds, and it was reproduced in French engravings. A version even appeared on mass-produced Staffordshire mugs (one example of which is in the National Gallery of Australia).

Eighteenth-century British society was captivated by the kangaroo – not only out of scientific curiosity, but also because of its charm. It even captured the imagination of Samuel Johnson, compiler of the first English dictionary. In 1773, the same year that Stubbs’s painting was first exhibited in London, Johnson was seen imitating the animal. ‘He stood erect,’ one witness recalled, ‘put out his hands like feelers and gathering up the tail of his huge brown coat so as to resemble the pouch of the animal, made two or three vigorous bounds across the room.’

The Kongouro from New Holland (The Kangaroo) by George Stubbs was acquired by the National Maritime Museum with support from the Art Fund.

It is currently on display at the Horniman Museum and Gardens in the Cook and the Kangaroo exhibition (until 5 June).

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