Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Captain Cook by Nathaniel Dance-Holland

Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland, 1st Baronet RA (London, England, 8th May 1735 – Winchester, England, 15th October 1811) 


Self Portrait by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland, 1st Baronet RA, 1773
Self Portrait, 1773

On the three occasions that I have told tales of Captain James Cook, I have featured the same 1776 portrait of the famed explorer. That portrait was painted by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland and, since today marks the anniversary of the artist's death, I thought the time was right to offer a little insight into iconic portrait of Cook. Of course, all of us Georgians know the Captain by reputation and there's many a seafaring gent pays his bar bill with stories of adventures alongside the Captain, half of them as fanciful as they false! Still, if today's post piques an interest in his voyages, you can also join him on Possession Island, Botany Bay and learn more of his grisly murder elsewhere on the Guide.




In this rather fine portrait, Cook is certainly in his Sunday best and sports full dress uniform, as well as a suitable grave expression. As befits a gentleman given to exploration and charting the furthest oceans, the items depicted with the Captain are suitably iconic and chosen with great care. On the table what could be any chart is actually Cook's own chart of the Southern Ocean. With his finger he gestures to the east coast of Australia which, of course, he chartered. This hand is notable for what it doesn't show too, as Dance-Holland has elected not to paint Cook's right hand with a scar left by a burn some twelve years earlier.


The portrait was commissioned by Sir Joseph Banks, who had sailed with Cook in the past, and the captain sat for Dance-Holland portrait on 25th May 1776 so that he might begin work. Whether Cook sat for the artist again we do not know but what is certain is that, upon its completion, the portrait was hung over the fireplace in Banks's home in London. Here it remained until Banks died in 1820 when it went first to Greenwich Hospital and then on to the National Maritime Museum, where it remains to this day.

8 comments:

  1. Good artist. If the scar was painted in, it would draw the eye and distract from the rest of the work. So artists are taught to leave out the odd thing that would otherwise ruin a painting.

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    1. I hadn't thought about that; as you know, I'm very much learning about the art world!

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  2. Interesting to compare it with the lesser-known portrait by William Hodges said to be more realistic. http://goo.gl/Yg0f4y

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    1. Thank you so much; I can see they're the same person but the second is powerful in a totally different way. It's so stark!

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  3. Handsome so and so , suited to his heroic life.

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  4. At one point many years ago I did a section of a book on Captain Cook. The man was a genius. He had an amazing sense of where coastlines might go, and was able to read the waves and the winds almost as well as a Polynesian whose life depended on that knowledge. Plus, of course, it was he who insisted his men eat limes on his voyages, which is where "limey" comes from, so that he was the first captain to bring his crew back with not a single case of scurvy. (Not that the crew was grateful initially--they heartily disliked the limes!)

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    1. He really was a remarkable character!

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