John Webber’s portrait of James Cook RN, 1782.

When Alan Bond watched Australia II take line honours in the America’s Cup Yacht Race in 1983, he did not know that close by, beneath the waves, lay the shipwreck of HMB Endeavour.  It would remain secret for another 16 years.  Cook’s portrait of James Cook hung in Bond’s boardroom, his imperious presence overseeing the plans being drawn up for Australia II’s successful campaign.

On 6th July 1844 the Board of Trinity House, Hull ordered “that the portrait of the late Captain James Cook the celebrated navigator which is now on sale be purchased for the purpose of being hung in this House”

The Property of the Corporation of The Hull Trinity House, A Portrait of Captain James Cook RN (1782) by John Webber, was the star attraction of Sotheby’s inaugural auction in Melbourne in March 1983. The portrait was honoured with a full-page colour illustration in the catalogue and an extensive three-page essay. It was also the only work listed as ‘estimate on application’ and, although it was given the most prominence in the catalogue, it was not featured until page 28 as lot 45; this was owing to the structure of the sale as pre-ordained by Sotheby’s to set the rhythm. It sold for $506,000 (including the buyer’s premium) purchased by Lady Angela Nevill on behalf of businessman Alan Bond.

After Bond’s company, Dallhold Investments, collapsed the portrait was sold by Bond Corporation Holdings to George Way (a friend of the Bond family) at the High Street Gallery in Fremantle in 1990, after which it was effectively missing until it was found in Switzerland in 1993.

The National Portrait Gallery, Canberra bought the portrait for $5.l3 million in August 2000 with funds from two patrons — Rosemount Wines’ Oatley family and Tempo Cleaning Services’ John Schaeffer — and $2.8 million from the Australian Government. This picture painted from memory in 1782 is one of only five known surviving portraits of Cook painted in the eighteenth century and, until it was acquired by the Gallery, was the only one outside a major gallery or museum.

Information from: Pedigree and Panache. A History of the Art Auction in Australia. Shireen Huda 2008…

John Webber, 1751- 1793 was the official painter on Cook’s third and last voyage of 1776-1780.
Dr Daniel Solander, the Swedish naturalist who had sailed on the first voyage with Cook and Banks saw and admired Webber’s works exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1776 and, knowing that no artist had been appointed for the next voyage of the Resolution, he recommended the twenty-four year old Webber. Webber received his appointment from the Admiralty at 100 guineas a year on 24th June 1776, joined Resolution at Plymouth on July 5th, sailing one week later.

The terms of his commission were almost identical to those for William Hodges four years earlier on Cook’s second voyage:

“Whereas we have engaged Mr John Webber Draughtsman and Landskip Painter to proceed in His majesty’s Sloop under your command on her present intended voyage, in order to make Drawings and Paintings of such places in the Countries you may touch at in the course of the said Voyage as may be proper to give a more perfect idea thereof than can be formed by written descriptions only; You are hereby required and directed to receive the said Mr John Webber on board giving him all proper assistance, Victualling him as the Sloop’s company, and taking care that he does diligently employ himself in making Drawings or Paintings of such places as you may touch at, that may be worthy of notice, in the course of your voyage, as also such other objects and things as may fall within the compass of his abilities”

Cook wrote in his Journal: “And, that we might go out with every help that could serve to make the results of our voyage entertaining to the generality of readers, as well as instructive to the sailor and scholar, Mr Webber was pitched upon, and engaged to embark with me, for the express purpose of supplying the unavoidable imperfections of written accounts, by enabling us to preserve, and to bring home, such drawings of the most memorable scenes of our transactions, as could be expected by a professed and skilled artist”.

Webber’s appointment was a success. He was popular with his shipmates, and his work was appreciated too. He was obviously an assiduous and enthusiastic worker. He penned, crayoned, and water-coloured his way around the world, producing a large volume of material – from lightning quick field sketches, to worked-up drawings, to complete compositions. He amply fulfilled his task of making an accurate record of landscape and ‘memorable scenes’, as well as doing competent portraits.

He returned in October 1780, following Cook’s death, with over 200 drawings and some twenty portraits in oils and was reappointed by the Admiralty at £250 a year to make oil paintings based on his drawings. These were the illustrations for the official account of the voyage. He then supervised the engravings made of the pictures to enable them to be printed and published.

(source acknowledgement:  National Portrait Gallery