General view of the Island of Otaheite [Tahiti, from the south-east]

(Updated, August 2018) 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. The title of this one in the 1929 Admiralty catalogue is 'General View of the Island of Otaheite' but for some reason it was misleadingly long recorded in the Museum as 'Tahiti, bearing south-east' : it is in fact a view from the south-east looking roughly north-west.

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. The impact of this work on Hodges' painting is evident in his small studies of the islands and coastlines.

This image was probably painted in London for the published voyage account, completed from the large coastal profile drawing (British Library Add MS 15743, f. 9) made on the spot during a second visit to Tahiti, between 22 April and 14 May 1774. It shows a north-westerly view of Matavai Bay and the island from the north-west, with Mount Orofena in the distance, together with Point Venus and a rather obstructed view of Matavai Bay (left and centre), and One-Tree Hill. The scene is diffused with the light from the rising sun on the left of the painting. Various Tahitian boats can be seen in the foreground; a small outrigger sailing canoe on the far left, the coastal craft in the centre with two figures on board, and the war canoe on the far right with its dominant stern. Hodges was known to 'make drawings of every thing curious' which, in slightly different terms, was encouraged by his and Cook's orders.

This painting attempts to compare the boat-types, with the island used as an appropriate back-drop at a rather smaller scale than was probably realistic. To include the whole island at the apparent distance indicated by the size of the foreground boats, its size has been considerably compressed by Hodges. Conscious of the constraints of scientific empiricism, he sought to develop a mode of painting that would preserve his perceptions and memories of tropical light and colour and enable him to convey a wealth of ethnographic detail with accuracy. This painting is an example of that, being almost separate studies of the boats and of the atmospheric effects over the island on the same canvas. Specifics of construction, decoration and sailing method, as well as types of local dress can all be learnt from his image.

Object Details

ID: BHC1935
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Hodges, William
Vessels: Resolution (purchased 1771); Adventure (purchased 1771)
Date made: 1775
Exhibition: The Art and Science of Exploration, 1768-80
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Painting: 245 x 475 x 8 mm; Frame: 354 mm x 581 mm x 85 mm; Weight: 4.2 kg
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