Burial Ground in the South Seas. Painting by John Webber, around 1777.
Burial Ground in the South Seas. Painting by John Webber, around 1777. Yale Center for British Art

Around the world with James Cook

The Swiss-British artist John Webber (1751-1793) served as the draughtsman in Captain James Cook's third expedition to Oceania, Canada, and Alaska. Webber’s artwork captures a unique moment in time – the first encounters of the British with indigenous peoples from around the Pacific Rim.

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener is a world historian, Co-Founder of World History Encyclopedia, writer, and PR specialist, who has taught as a professor in Europe and North America.

John Webber was born in London to a Swiss father, Abraham Wäber (1715-1780), and an English mother, Mary Quant. His father was a Bernese sculptor from a prosperous merchant family who had relocated to the United Kingdom in his youth. As Webber’s artistic talents were evident from a young age, his parents thought it best that he was sent to Bern at the age of six. He spent his early years in an artistic milieu with his paternal aunt, Rosina Wäber (1712-1787), who was the sister-in-law and very good friend to the famous cabinet maker Mathäus Funk (1697-1793). Rosina helped Webber find an apprenticeship with the painter Johann Ludwig Aberli (1723-1786) in Bern, which would last from 1767-1770. Aberli’s was the leading atelier in the Old Confederation, and Webber’s talent blossomed under Aberli’s tutelage. Aberli frequently took Webber on trips into the Berner Oberland, Lake Neuchâtel, Lake Biel, and Lake Geneva so that he could sharpen his skills as a landscape artist. Aberli had spent several years in Paris working as an artist and professional etcher, and it was he who likely encouraged Webber to complete his artistic training in cosmopolitan Paris. As Aberli was intimately connected with the leading contemporary French and German artists working in France, he provided Webber with invaluable references and letters of recommendation.
John Webber, Portrait by Johann Daniel Mottet, 1812.
John Webber, Portrait by Johann Daniel Mottet, 1812. Wikimedia
The five years in which Webber lived in the French capital remain poorly documented, but it is known that he studied under and worked with the German-French landscape painter and international art dealer Jean-Georges Wille (1715-1808) at the Académie Royale. Wille was the official engraver to Louis XV (r. 1715-1774) and Louis XVI (r. 1774-1792), and he also ran a successful engraving school in which he taught a naturalistic approach to drawing and regularly employed nude models. What historians can piece together from existing records is that Webber continued to specialize in landscape paintings and that he accompanied Wille on several trips throughout France. Webber’s few surviving works of art from this time period reflect a marked similarity to 17th-century Dutch and German prints sold by Wille to clients in Germany. Webber, unlike his contemporaries, preferred a more authentic rather than idealized style in his landscape compositions.
The Lower Grindelwald Glacier c. 1762. Coloured etching by Johann Ludwig Aberli, c. 1770.
The Lower Grindelwald Glacier c. 1762. Coloured etching by Johann Ludwig Aberli, c. 1770. Swiss National Museum
By April 1775, Webber had grown tired of Paris. Tensions were escalating between France and Britain, which would soon erupt into open conflict as a result of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783); Webber knew that there was no longer a place for him in France. His younger brother, Henry Webber (1754-1826), had recently won acclaim as a successful sculptor in England, and Webber decided to try his own chances back home. He left Paris and promptly enrolled in the Royal Academy in London. Although his wages were low and he often found himself working odd jobs, Webber frequently socialized with the crème de la crème of London’s fashionable artistic set: Francis Hayman (1708-1776), who was one of the founding members of the Royal Academy; the famed American artist Benjamin West (1739-1820), who was Surveyor of Pictures to George III (r. 1760-1820); the popular society portraitist Nathaniel Dance-Holland (1735-1811); and the Irish romantic artist James Barry (1741-1806).

Do just once what others say you can't do, and you will never pay attention to their limitations again.

Captain James Cook

Artist for James Cook’s Third Expedition (1776−1780)

Webber’s fortunes changed, by sheer chance, when the Swedish scientist Daniel Carlsson Solander (1733-1782) saw several of his naturalistic landscapes in an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. Impressed with the liveliness of expression he saw in Webber’s landscapes, Solander recommended him to the English naturalist Sir Joseph Banks (c. 1742-1820). It is likely through Banks’ counsel or solicitation that the British Admiralty hired Webber as an artist to accompany Captain James Cook (1728-1779) on his third expedition (1776-1780) around the world. Webber was to report directly to Cook, who, in turn, would provide further personal instructions as to artistic direction. Cook’s surgeon's mate, William Wade Ellis (1751-1785), would assist Webber as a fellow artist and undersecretary. Illustrations were of vital importance to the expedition as they served as proof to the environmental and cultural sensations that Cook attested to within his diaries and scientific essays.
James Cook, painted by John Webber around 1780.
James Cook, painted by John Webber around 1780. Museum of New Zealand
Map showing the third voyage of Captain James Cook.
Map showing the third voyage of Captain James Cook. The route prior to Cook's death is shown in red, and the route of his crew following Cook's death is shown in green. Wikimedia
The HMS Resolution departed Plymouth, England on July 12, 1776 with Webber onboard. For the next four years, Webber's primary duty lay in the production of artwork pertaining to coastal topography and landscapes, in addition to ethnological portraits of indigenous peoples. On rare occasions, Webber also sketched flora and fauna. Whether through his drawings of the fortified villages of the Maori in New Zealand, rocky coasts in Alaska, or the deep cut valleys in the Society Islands, Webber’s astute attention to detail delineates the hand of a virtuoso determined to bring natural phenomena to life. Portraiture was important as well as it provided a lens through which ethnological and physiognomic distinctions could be made. Webber, unlike many of the artists of the eighteenth century, was lucky in being able to secure the firsthand likenesses of a diverse array of peoples from across the Pacific Basin. He drew or painted portraits, primarily of couples around the age of 25, with the intent to replicate their facial features and personal ornamentation with accuracy.
The HMS Resolution and Discovery in Tahiti, painted by John Cleveley the younger, around 1787.
The HMS Resolution and Discovery in Tahiti, painted by John Cleveley the younger, around 1787. Wikimedia
One of Webber’s most striking portraits from the voyage is of Princess Poedua of Ra’iatea (fl. 1758-1788), which was executed in oil. Here, Webber supersedes Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) by 120 years in thoughtfully capturing the allure and physical beauty of indigenous Tahitians. Throughout the expedition, Webber demonstrated a particular and personal interest in the religious rituals and artifacts of indigenous peoples, drawing temples, idols, cemeteries, processions, and festive banquets. This was precisely what Cook wanted and needed – there was substantial interest among British academics in indigenous cultic acts, in addition to indigenous notions of spirituality. When Cook’s vessels spent four weeks refitting in the Nootka Sound, in what is present-day British Columbia, Canada, Webber even traded two gold buttons to the Nootkas so that he could finish a drawing of two life-sized totems belonging to the Nootka tribe.
Portrait of Princess Poedua of Ra’iatea, around 1782.
Portrait of Princess Poedua of Ra’iatea, around 1782. Wikimedia

Return to England & Impressive Legacy

Immediately following Cook’s death February 14, 1779 on the island of Hawaiʻi, Webber began to organize and prepare a series of nearly 200 illustrations for a planned atlas that would serve as the final report of the voyage. Many works had to be redrawn and colored, and Webber additionally oversaw the editing and reworking of Ellis’ corpus of 240 drawings. Such efforts did not go unrewarded or unnoticed. Upon Webber’s return to London in August 1780, George III requested a personal audience to review his artistic portfolio. Fanny Burney (1752-1840), the esteemed novelist, and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich and the Lord of the Admiralty (1718-1792) were also in attendance to meet him. For the next five years, Webber continued to work, supervising the engraving and publication of his works of art in various journals. He continued to paint landscapes too, and around 50 works appeared in exhibitions at the Royal Academy between 1784 and 1792. Webber worked primarily in London, aside from a short sojourn in Paris and Bern in 1787 and a later excursion to sketch in Wales during the same year. As a result of his participation in Cook’s last voyage of discovery, Webber became an associate of the Royal Academia in 1785; in 1791, he became a full member. However, Webber’s health began to decline in the early 1790s, limiting his ability to paint. In 1793, Webber died of kidney disease at his residence on Oxford Street aged only 41.
The inside of a winter habitation in Kamtschatka.
The inside of a winter habitation in Kamtschatka. Universitätsbibliothek Bern
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View of Santa Cruz, Tenerife, 1776.
View of Santa Cruz, Tenerife, 1776. Yale Center for British Art
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Bird (Sandwich Isles), 1776-1780.
Bird (Sandwich Isles), 1776-1780. The British Museum
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Fish (Sandwich Isles), 1776-1780.
Fish (Sandwich Isles), 1776-1780. The British Museum
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Webber holds the distinction of being the first Swiss man to visit what is present-day Australia and New Zealand as well the first European artist to visit Hawaii. Webber’s artwork thus captures a unique moment in time – the first encounters of the British with the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Rim before colonization. It is worth remembering that no other scientific expedition gave rise to so many pictorial representations as those of Cook’s voyages. Webber’s participation in Cook’s final voyage helped further the dissemination of nautical, climatic, cartographical, zoological, and ethnographic knowledge of previously unknown regions. This impressive legacy of scientific and geographical knowledge influenced research in a variety of disciplines well into the twentieth century. Nonetheless, further research is still warranted in establishing Webber's place among 18th-century European artists and the ways in which his works shaped ethnological inquiry. Today, major collections of Webber’s are found in museums in Australia, Alaska, Hawaii, Great Britain, and New Zealand. Although he had traveled around the world and lived most of his life in Great Britain, Webber never relinquished nor forgot his strong ties to Switzerland. Before his death, Webber bequeathed several works and over 100 ethnographic collectibles to the Burgerbibliothek in Bern, many of which can be seen today at the Bern Historical Museum in Bern, Switzerland.
Man from Tasmania, print after a drawing by John Webber, around 1777.
Man from Tasmania, print after a drawing by John Webber, around 1777. Swiss National Museum
Collections of Webber's works can be found in many cultural institutions, including the Bern Historical Museum in Bern, Switzerland, the British Museum in London, UK, the National Maritime Museum in London, UK, the Anchorage Museum in Anchorage, Alaska (USA), the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii (USA), the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, New Zealand, and the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia.

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