Captain James Cook, 1728-79

A three-quarter-length portrait of Captain Cook, seated to the left, facing the right. He is wearing captain's full-dress uniform, 1774-87, consisting of a navy blue jacket, white waistcoat with gold braid and gold buttons and white breeches. He wears a grey wig or his own hair powdered. He holds his own chart of the Southern Ocean on the table and his right hand points to the east coast of Australia on it. His left thumb and finger lightly hold the other edge of the chart over his knee. His hat sits on the table behind him to the left on top of a substantial book, perhaps his journal, itself resting on the chart.

In 1772, Cook sailed for the second time to the fringes of the Antarctic and the Pacific, returning in 1775. He sat for this portrait, commissioned by Sir Joseph Banks, 'for a few hours before dinner' on 25 May 1776 but it is not known whether he did so again before he left London on 24 June for his third voyage, never to return. None the less, David Samwell, surgeon's mate in 'Resolution' on the second voyage and surgeon of 'Discovery' on the third, thought it 'a most excellent likeness ... and ... the only one I have seen that bears any resemblance to him'. This view was based on John Sherwin's later engraving of the portrait, which probably argues even more favourably for the original despite an element of idealization, not least omission of a large burn scar (from 1764) on the right hand. Banks had sailed with Cook on his first voyage in the 'Endeavour' and took an influential interest in his subsequent ones. This portrait hung over the fireplace in the library of his London house. After his death, it was presented to the Naval Gallery at Greenwich Hospital by his executor, Sir Edward Knatchbull, following a request by E.H. Locker, the Hospital Secretary. In 1781-83 Charles Grignion, then in Rome, painted a 'Death of Captain Cook' which was sold in 1821 after the British Museum declined it as a bequest from his brother Thomas, a well-known watchmaker. That picture subsequently disappeared but Thomas's will says the likeness of Cook was based on the present portrait.

Dance worked with Pompeo Batoni in Rome and on his return to London in 1765 achieved success as a portrait and history painter. In 1768, he joined a group of artists who successfully petitioned George III to establish the Royal Academy in that year.

Object Details

ID: BHC2628
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - Pacific Encounters Gallery
Creator: Dance, Nathaniel
Date made: 1775-76; 1776
Exhibition: The Art and Science of Exploration, 1768-80; Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude
People: Cook, James; Knatchbull, Edward Banks, Joseph
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection
Measurements: Frame: 1455 mm x 1204 mm x 90 mm;Overall: 32.2 kg;Painting: 1270 mm x 1016 mm

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