BLACKSMITH'S SON ON A COOK'S TOUR TO FAME; Appointed as Official Artist on the Great Explorer's Second South Seas Voyage of Discovery, the Almost Unknown William Hodges Blossomed into an Original Painter

Article excerpt

Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

CRITIC OF THE YEAR

IN THE histories of 18th-century English art, William Hodges has always been relegated to the footnotes, at best dismissed in a single paragraph or, at worst, ignored, the centenaries of his birth in 1744 and death in 1797, overlooked. We knew only two things of him - if we knew anything at all -that his adolescent years had been spent in the studio of the landscape painter Richard Wilson learning to forge his master's paintings, and that at the age of 28 he had been appointed official painter on Captain James Cook's second voyage of exploration in Pacific and Antarctic waters.

For the first, there is some evidence but no proof; Wilson's hand lay heavy on all who came into contact with him and, as a lazy drunkard in his later years, he may have been content to pass off the pictures of his better students as his own. For the second, we knew the fact, but the evidence lay largely in the possession of the Admiralty, invisible to the public and, unseen by art historians, set on one side as of interest far less to them than to historians of exploration.

Hodges' slow redemption from this long obscurity began only in 1985, with the publication of two handsome volumes on The Art of Captain Cook's Voyages, of which the second is virtually a monograph on Hodges in the three years 1772-1775. By Rudiger Joppien, a German scholar with great affection for English art, and Bernard Smith, an Australian, these are the foundation studies on which the current exhibition at the National Maritime Museum - William Hodges, The Art of Exploration - depends and to them any diligent visitor must turn, not only for a more detailed account of Hodges' work for Cook, but for illustrations of the precedents set him on the first voyage by less able artists, particularly by the otherwise forgotten Sydney Parkinson.

In the exhibition and its catalogue, Hodges is presented as a genius of sorts, even as one who should have primacy over his master, Cook, and he "is repositioned as one of the most intriguing and controversial painters of his age". Intriguing is a fine word for him, for on first acquaintance his work arouses curiosity of the same kind as the first sight of a thatched cottage, a rubber dinghy or an opened oyster, and just as these are scarcely recognisable as architecture, shipbuilding or a fish, so Hodges' drawings of figures, faces and places scarcely amount to art - though with oil paint he makes a far better fist of it. Controversial, however, is not the right word for Hodges, for he was as much driven by the artistic conventions of the day as any other uninventive painter, and when pretension struck root in him, he was destroyed by the blind ambition of un-self-critical self-education.

As its title suggests, the exhibition is centred on Cook's cat's cradle of a voyage among the islands of the South Pacific and in search of the Antarctic continent in which men then believed but, balked by gales, cold and the menace of " floating ice islands" could not reach.

It also attempts, in a less energetic and certainly less encyclopaedic way, to give us Hodges, the life and times, Hodges, the moral philosopher and man of letters, and Hodges the complete painter. The problem with this "Everything we ever wanted to know about Hodges" approach is that we still do not know enough; his biography is patchy, sketchy and blank; as thinker and writer he is neither Rousseau nor Burke, his high-flown utterance overblown, tedious and naive; and his work, apart from the material executed on the great voyage and in India, is scattered to the winds.

As the only son of a blacksmith with a smithy in the market that was cleared to make way for Lower Regent Street and Waterloo Place, it is remarkable that Hodges became a painter. He had no formal education, though Wilson may have given him some elementary grounding in classical mythology, as well as in the pictorial conventions of Poussin and Claude; nor had he any obvious means of establishing social connections and yet he seems to have early attracted the patronage of Viscount Palmerston, the young Lord of the Admiralty who appointed him, virtually unknown, to Cook and the task that secured him a unique, if almost forgotten, place in the history of English art. …