Travels with a paintbrush, Iain Sharp

Tuhituhi: William Hodges, Cook’s Painter in the South Pacific
Laurence Simmons
Otago University Press, $60.00,
ISBN 9781877578175

 

In the last decades of the 20th century, with political correctness at its zenith, you could scarcely mention the British Empire in educated circles without first making clear your contraposition by tendering apologies to colonised indigenes. This has given way in recent years to a less shame-faced look at imperial enterprise as part of the history of migration, settlement and, to borrow a phrase from James Belich’s influential Replenishing the Earth, “Anglo divergence”. One of the side-effects of the re-evaluative process has been a resurgence of interest in the long-neglected career of William Hodges (1744-97), whose paintings and drawings are among the earliest visual records of British expansionism.

Hodges was a remarkably well-travelled man for his time. From July 1772 to July 1775 he was aboard the Resolution, sailing from Plymouth to the Antarctic Circle and back, with stops at Madeira, Cape Town, New Zealand, Tahiti, Tonga, Easter Island, the Marquesas, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Tierra del Fuego. In the early 1780s he toured India under the protection of Warren Hastings, the much maligned but probably not especially malignant first Governor of Bengal. In 1790 he visited St Petersburg, capital of Catherine the Great’s powerful dominion. Even in his less venturesome years he was continually on the move around Britain, depicting the estates of the aristocracy.

Often the only pictures we have of early cross-cultural contact were made by amateur artists among expeditionary personnel. Hodges, however, was a fully trained professional. As a boy he studied under English drawing master William Shipley and at age 14 he was apprenticed for seven years to Richard Wilson, Britain’s foremost landscape painter of the period. Keen to advance his reputation among London’s art establishment, even while he was abroad, Hodges arranged for paintings he completed during the first part of the Resolution’s voyage to be shipped back to England from Cape Town and exhibited. Once on home soil again, he reworked the drawings and watercolours he made in the South Pacific into full-scale oil paintings, employing an enriched palette.

Much of the fascination of Hodges’s output is in watching a skilled technician come to terms with unfamiliar terrain, weather conditions, physiognomy, clothing and ornamentation. As Laurence Simmons reminds us, Cook’s second voyage of discovery was a scientific expedition. Aboard the Resolution were the brilliant mathematician and astronomer William Wales, the formidable part-Scottish part-Prussian naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg, who was a highly competent draughtsman.

Hodges’s documentation of the journey was expected to comply with the scientists’ exacting standards of accuracy and detail. As he sailed from island to island, he continually rethought lighting effects. While crossing Cook Strait, the Resolution had to contend with a series of waterspouts. Depicting these strange physical phenomena forced Hodges to devise new ways of conveying motion within a static medium.

Earlier critics, such as Francis Pound, have commented on how colonial artists relied on European concepts of landscape-making as their intellectual framework, their way of seeing. While Hodges certainly borrowed ideas from a tradition extending back to Salvatore Rosa and Claude Lorrain, Simmons argues convincingly for Hodges’s status as inventor as well as perpetuator. Not only did his South Pacific canvases help establish a vogue for the exotic, his discoveries in regard to light and movement influenced later British artists, including Turner. The detailed specificity of Hodges’s paintings, Simmons suggests, put him at variance with the dominant art theorist of his day, Joseph Reynolds, whose forcible notion of the sublime called for a more generalised and idealised kind of landscape.

But Hodges’s points of variance from his contemporaries go beyond art debates. That’s a large part of his appeal. In common with other 18th-century thinkers, the Forsters subscribed to a hierarchical ordering of the human species, regarding Europeans as the pinnacle of civilisation, Tahitians as approaching civility, Maori as distressingly savage if quite handsome, and the ni-Vanuatu as unremittingly hideous and barbaric. Perhaps during table talk in the Resolution’s mess Hodges nodded along with them, but in his paintings he seems to look for the common features of humanity, identifying almost as much with the natives as with the British explorers.

For Cook, whose career in the Royal Navy began in the 1750s with military engagements against first the French and then the American revolutionaries, the ability of Tahitians to build a large war fleet was proof of their superior standing. Again, perhaps Hodges agreed, but Simmons directs our gaze towards the grieving mother in the lower left corner of the large painting The War Boats of the Island of Otaheite. In later years Hodges’s pacifist sentiments got him into trouble. He gave up painting in January 1795 and turned, with disastrous results, to banking instead, after Prince Frederick, the bellicose Duke of York, took exception to one of his most ambitious works, The Effects of War, and banned its public display.

A mind of polymathic agility is needed to guide us through the various conjectures and controversies that impact on Hodges’s oeuvre, and Simmons proves well suited to the task. Head of film, media and television studies at Auckland University, he has published penetrating essays on a dizzying range of non-filmic topics from Baudrillard, Derrida and Zizek to Colin McCahon, Gordon Walters, Terry Stringer and Richard Killeen. He’s probably best known to a majority of readers as the editor of the 2007 collection of interviews with New Zealand’s “public intellectuals”, Speaking Truth to Power. Besides the requisite intellect, he has two attributes that would make him an admirable public intellectual himself, if only New Zealand media, never forthcoming in this regard, presented the opportunities.

The first of these is patience. He does not rush or assume anything. A careful explainer, he consistently takes arguments back to first principles. He is not, however, a simplifier. At the top of his game, when bandying around such terms as “metonymy”, “synecdoche” and “facticity”, he can be a tough read. But he provides all the necessary information. It’s up to us at what point of the discussion we decide to bail out.

Allied to this is Simmons’s other outstanding trait: a rare and very attractive courtesy. Instead of treating the reader brusquely as Watson to his Sherlock Holmes, he addresses us throughout as if conferring with a learned colleague whose erudition matches his own. Guided by a beautifully collegial rather than competitive view of knowledge, he’s also unfailingly respectful to other researchers, even when he happens not wholly to agree with them. Because ideas excite him he always pays due homage to their originators.

Simmons signalled his interest in Hodges a decade ago by contributing a searching article on the 1773 painting View in Pickersgill Harbour, Dusky Bay to Landfall 204. Reprinted in expanded form as the first chapter of the current book, it establishes the methodology for what follows. In each chapter Simmons begins with a detailed description of a particular painting or group of related paintings. Then he provides the historical context by quoting from the journals of Cook, Wales and the Forsters. Then he connects the painting to larger areas of debate within the 18th century and beyond.

His final chapter is not on Hodges but on McCahon, who remarked in 1972, “Hodges and I eventually realised we were friends over the years and got talking about his painting. He was dead and I was about the same. We conversed, through paint (about Naples yellow to start with …).”

For a small country, New Zealand has been blessed with some gifted art critics, beginning with Eric McCormick in the 1940s, but Simmons is in a class of his own as a close reader. Compared with his meticulous thoughtfulness, everybody else seems hurried or lazy. Among the many sound reasons to purchase this volume, the most compelling, I believe, is that Simmons teaches us, by example, how to look and think harder.

My only misgiving is that Otago University Press reproduces the paintings in such a small format – and on matt paper – that I frequently cannot discern for myself all the details that Simmons describes. He says there are three figures standing behind the mother and child in The War Boats of the Island of Otaheite. I can’t see any of them. He goes to the trouble of determining that the seabirds shown in A View of Cape Stephens in Cook’s Straits are probably “Light-Mantled Sooty Albatrosses (Phoebetria palpebrata)”. In the reproduction they’re just squiggles. In an ideal world there would be a television series with the camera lingering lovingly and precisely on parts of Hodges’s canvases while Simmons explicates.

 

Iain Sharp is an Auckland writer and reviewer. 

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Posted in Art, History, Non-fiction and Review
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