'A View of Cape Stephens in Cook's Straits with Waterspout'

Hodges' paintings of the Pacific are vivid records of British exploration. He was appointed by the Admiralty to record the places discovered on Cook's second voyage, undertaken in the 'Resolution' and 'Adventure', 1772-75. This was primarily in the form of drawings, with some oil sketches, many later converted to engravings in the official voyage account. He also completed large oil paintings for exhibition in London on his return, which exercised lasting influence on European ideas of the Pacific. The National Maritime Museum holds 26 oils relating to the voyage of which 24 were either painted for or acquired by the Admiralty.

Cook's main purpose on this expedition was to locate, if possible, the much talked-of but unknown Southern Continent and further expand knowledge of the central Pacific islands, in which Hodges' records of coastal profiles were in part important for navigational reasons.

This painting, located between Dusky Bay and Queen Charlotte Sound, revolves around several incidents in May 1773. Departing from Hodges's topographical images of the voyage, it fuses continuous narrative, landscape, classical references and other diverse elements with personal experiences of the voyage. With topsails clewed, the 'Resolution' experiences the extreme weather conditions caused by waterspouts, off a rocky shore, centre left. In the centre foreground three figures observe from the rocks and on the far right seals clamber to safety. The woman, with European features, faces away from the viewer; naked to the waist, she holds a baby. The man, adopting biblical pose and costume, gestures towards the waterspout in the left foreground. Witnessing the contest between man and nature they signify the particular, as a Maori family, and the universality of mankind. The blackened sky is pierced by flashes of lightning which have struck the Maori 'pa', or fortified settlement, precariously balanced on the promontory to the right.

Four waterspouts appear to be depicted, the principal one in the left foreground spiralling towards the sky and the others near the 'Resolution'. In fact, the painting repeats both the written account by William Wales, 'Resolution's' astronomer, and a more documentary engraving after a lost drawing by Hodges which supplemented it, in showing not three separate waterspouts near the ship but three stages in the process of a single one's formation. The one in the left foreground (as in the engraving) shows the column which approached within forty yards of the ship. It thus provided one of the most terrifying incidents of the voyage, when they 'prepared for the worst'.

Influenced by contemporary essays on the sublime and artists such as Joseph Wright of Derby, Gaspard Dughet, and Richard Wilson, Hodges completed this continuous narrative in 1776. The seals recall a brief seal-hunting expedition and the burning building on the headland a subsequent incident. These carefully composed pictorial elements fuse, inviting a sublime response in which the ocean evokes differing sensations of inspiration and dread. Man is pitched against forces of nature (as air, water and fire) and man's fire of ambition is compared and contrasted with nature's fire. Hodges's innovative landscapes, more than the depiction of topography, sit at the interface between the classical, the naturalistic and a formulaic adherence to the principles of sublime. He aimed to elevate landscape to the higher status of history painting - 'to give dignity to landscape painting' - and anticipated subsequent practitioners, particularly Turner, by suggesting that landscape could be elevated to embrace heroic action and moral precepts.

This painting, which is signed and dated 1776, is one of four (or two pairs) of the same size done for the Admiralty, the others being BHC1932, BHC2371 and BHC2377.

Object Details

ID: BHC1906
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - QH
Creator: Hodges, William
Vessels: Resolution (purchased 1771)
Date made: 1776
Exhibition: Art for the Nation; Ministry of Defence Art Collection
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Painting: 1359 x 1930 mm; Frame: 1580 mm x 2150 mm x 112 mm; Weight: 83 kg

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