Webber sketched and painted many scenes of Tahitian dance and ceremony in September 1777 during James Cook's third Pacific voyage. This dance or heiva corresponds to one mentioned in Cook's journal where he was treated to a play by the sisters of Otoo - the principal chief of Tahiti.
The British Admiralty appointed John Webber as the artist on Captain James Cook's third expedition (1776-1780). The engraving is part of a series of 78 plates, based on some of Webber's many drawings from the voyage, by various engravers. They were first printed as part of an Atlas volume accompanying the journals of the expedition commanders, titled A voyage to the Pacific Ocean, undertaken, by the command of His Majesty, for making discoveries in the northern hemisphere, etc.
The engravings were made, with Webber's assistance, from his original sketches and watercolours, and subjects include Indigenous people, artifacts and views from the Pacific Islands, North America, Alaska and Siberia.
SignificanceThe publication of Webber's images as engravings reflects the late eighteenth century widespread popular interest in James Cook, his voyages of exploration and the peoples and landscapes of the Pacific Islands. It was during this voyage that Cook was killed at Hawaii in 1779.
Webber's numerous paintings and drawings are the most comprehensive visual record of any of Cook's voyages. Many of his unfinished paintings were chosen for engraving. Some original images have been lost and only the engravings survive. The subject material is an important historical record of eighteenth century Pacific explorers, Indigenous people, artifacts and landscapes.
HistoryJohn Webber (1751-1793) was the official artist on Captain James Cook's third voyage of exploration from 1776 to 1780. Cook sailed the RESOLUTION which had served him well on his second voyage and was accompanied by Captain Charles Clerke on the DISCOVERY. Their goal was to search for the elusive Northwest Passage in North America and to return the Polynesian Omai, who had accompanied Cook's second voyage to England, back to Huahine in the Society Islands.
The expedition left England in mid-1776 sailing via the Cape of Good Hope and re-provisioning at Adventure Bay in Tasmania. Cook then made for the Pacific via New Zealand and after visiting the Cook Islands, spent time in various Tongan Islands before heading to Tahiti.
In December 1777, Cook sailed for the North Pacific and reached a new group of islands, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). The expedition then continued toward North America and spent time charting the Alaskan and Siberian coasts and searching for a passage, until the ships were blocked by ice near the Arctic Circle.
In January 1779 the expedition returned south to Hawaii and Cook and several crew members and Hawaiians were killed in a fight when the RESOLUTION unexpectedly returned to Kealakekua Bay. Clerke took command and resumed the unsuccessful search for the Northwest Passage. The ships returned to England via Japan and Macao in October 1780.
John Webber was the son of a Swiss Sculptor Abraham Waber (Webber) who married an English woman Mary Quant. Webber first trained as an artist in Switzerland, then studied at the Academie Royale in Paris. In 1775, at the age of 24, he continued his studies at the Royal Academy in London with other artists who had worked on images from Cook's earlier voyages, including Nathaniel Dance and Francesco Bartolozzi. Webber's work was noticed by Daniel Solander, the Swedish naturalist who had sailed on Cook's first voyage, and it was Solander who recommended him for appointment as official artist on Cook's third voyage.
Webber's background as an accomplished portraitist and landscape artist interested in rural subjects, well qualified him to make drawings and paintings of the people, objects and places the expedition was to visit. Combined with the paintings by William Webb Ellis, surgeon's second mate on the DISCOVERY, the prolific Webber produced the most comprehensive visual record of any of Cook's voyages. He also painted Cook's portrait during the voyage.
Soon after returning to England, Webber completed several large scale paintings. He supervised the engraving of his work that accompanied the publication of various accounts of the voyage and exhibited several paintings at the Royal Academy. In 1785 he assisted Philippe De Loutherbourg's London stage spectacle Omai, or a trip around the world. From 1786 Webber produced his own softground etching series titled, Views in the South Seas, and continued to profit from his Pacific images until his death in 1793.
Web title: A Dance in Otaheite
Primary title: A DANCE IN OTAHETE, PUBLISHED BY STRAHAN, NICOL AND CALDWELL