Magazine article Geographical

The Art of Exploration

Magazine article Geographical

The Art of Exploration

Article excerpt

The landscape paintings of William Hodges represent an intriguing visual document of the pre-photography world of James Cook, one of the greatest explorers of all time. Christian Amodeo introduces the work of a neglected artist whose reputation is being revived by a much-anticipated retrospective at the National Maritime Museum

On 13 July 1772, James Cook set out from Plymouth aboard the Resolution. It was exactly one year since he'd triumphantly returned to England, having observed the transit of Venus, become the first European to visit New Zealand and claimed Australia for the king. On this, his second voyage, his goal was to determine whether or not there was an undiscovered continent south of Tahiti.

During the three-year expedition, Cook and his crew became the first to cross the Antarctic Circle and travelled farther south than anyone before, reaching 71[degrees]10'S and almost discovering Antarctica itself. He did discover the South Sandwich Islands and successfully used the newly invented chronometer to determine his longitude with unprecedented accuracy. And thanks to the inclusion within the crew of a little-known artist by the name of William Hodges, the expedition returned with a unique pictorial record of its travels. At the rime, Hodges' unusually modern paintings of exotic and unknown realms were a revelation for European audiences. Today, more than two centuries later, they offer us a fascinating glimpse of a long-vanished world.

A portrait of the artist

The only child of Ann and Charles Hodges, a respected blacksmith of St James's Market, London, William was sent to William Shipley's Drawing School at Castle Court in the Strand and became a pupil of the influential Welsh landscape painter Richard Wilson for five years from 1758. He also attended the drawing and sculpture classes of GB Cipriani and Joseph Wilton at the Duke of Richmond's sculpture gallery. He became a member of the Incorporated Society of Artists and exhibited with them from 1766 until his appointment to the Resolution on 30 June 1772.

Accuracy and aesthetics

"Hodges' bold, impressionistic handling of paint was extraordinarily daring for its time. His work opened up new routes to understanding 18th-century art and its importance to the expansion of empire," says Dr Geoff Quilley, the curator of maritime art at the National Maritime Museum. Quilley has recently curated the first major retrospective of Hodges' work.

The brief that Hodges received from the Admiralty was 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 from written descriptions only". But he did a lot more. At first glance, some of Hodges' more fanciful works--depictions of native Polynesians as 'noble savages', statuesque fellows from Antiquity in toga-like robes, for example--might seem at odds with the output of the expedition draughtsmen, who strived for accuracy. But Hodges was familiar with, and at times subscribed to, both the topographical and ideal schools of 18th-century landscape painting. The former was concerned with accurate representation, while the latter was more romantic, and infused scenes with symbols of Classicism.

"Hodges took European ideas on human beauty, racial and cultural variety, politics, and environment to remote parts and tested them against the realities of those wonderfully exotic peoples, landscapes and societies. He then had to turn all that into art that would please his European patrons," says Nicholas Thomas, professor of anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and author of Discoveries, the 2000 reappraisal of Cook's voyages.

The expedition allowed Hodges to make advances in outdoor landscape painting before Constable. It has been argued that being in the company of scientists freed him from seeing the world as would a classically trained painter, leading him to develop a more impressionistic style. …

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