Did you know that Stubbs's iconic image of a kangaroo was modelled using a stuffed or inflated pelt?
The Kongouro and the Dingo
George Stubbs was the foremost British animal painter of the 18th century, normally working from life to create his masterpieces of animal portraiture. His portraits of horses may be better known today, but the artistic importance of his ‘exotic’ subjects cannot be overestimated. The ‘Kangaroo’ and ‘Dingo’ are not just his only depictions of Australian animals, but were created on the one occasion he was unable to observe from life. How was he able to do this?
Stubbs used written and verbal accounts of the two animals, and in the case of the kangaroo, a small group of pencil sketches, and a stuffed or inflated pelt. The completed paintings brought to fascinated public attention two unknown animals that soon became identified with the new world of Australia.
The paintings were commissioned by Sir Joseph Banks (1743–1820) a major figure in the development of European natural history and an important patron of science and the arts. Banks had participated on Captain James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific (1768–71), which was also the first British voyage devoted to scientific discovery.
'The Kongouro from New Holland' (Kangaroo) and 'Portrait of a Large Dog' (Dingo) are the most significant artistic works related to the voyage, and the earliest painted representations of these iconic animals in Western art. The image of the kangaroo eventually became the standard visual representation of a kangaroo in the 19th century.
The Voyage to the Land of the Kongouro and Dingo
Cook’s Endeavour voyage (and the two that followed in 1772–75 and 1776–80), began a new era of European maritime exploration that was to have profound significance for the cultures, politics and societies of both explorers and the explored. These state-sponsored voyages were largely to improve navigation and gain knowledge of uncharted lands, seas, peoples, plants and animals. To do this, Cook’s ships became floating laboratories carrying a staff of astronomers, artists, and natural scientists as well as seamen, who collected, sketched, painted, measured and recorded what they saw.
All three voyages produced important scientific results, but the first voyage captured the imaginations of the British and European general public and scientific communities with dramatic revelations of new lands, species and peoples.
The Legacy of Cook's Voyages
Nowadays, it’s easy to underestimate how extraordinary a feat Cook’s first voyage was, and the profound effect on its time and the course of British and world history. But some measure of its ambition and impact can be gauged by NASA adopting the name Endeavour for its fifth Space Shuttle (launched 1992).
In 2011 the Space Shuttle Discovery was named after the ship accompanying Cook on his third voyage; and it carried on its final mission the Cook Medal (1784) from the Museum’s collection.
For the late 18th century, Australia was an equally distant, unknown world, and Stubbs’s Kangaroo and Dingo represented, in a very real sense, ‘alien’ species.
Discover more about the medal commemorating Captain James Cook (1728-1779)
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