boatjacSir Oswald Brierly

‘Take with you paper and ynke.’

Fellow serfs and others pertaining ter a higher persuasion, let us go down ter the sea again fer a voyage with Captain Cook and more, but hasten, fer we must catch the tide …

In the year 1768 the Royal Society played a significant role in promoting Lieutenant James Cook’s first voyage to the South Seas. This was the Society’s largest maritime venture to date, although, since its foundation in 1660, the Royal Society had placed a high value upon the empirical observations to be gained from ships’ logs and the journals of travelers on long voyages, including, not only verbal and numerical data, but graphic records also. In order that such potentially valuable records to science should be accurate and comprehensive, the Society included ‘Directions for Seamen, bound for far voyages’ in the first volume of its ‘Philosophical Treatise.

Bernard Smith, Art Historian, in his book, ‘European Vision and the South Pacific,’ (1959.) examines the challenging new field of experience for Europeans that the Pacific Region provided, both for biblical creation theory and ideas of landscape art. Natural philosopher, Sir Joseph Banks and James Cook himself both inherited traditions of empirical observation derived from maritime practice and the precepts of the Royal Society, and on Cook’s voyages, professional artists trained in academies worked side by side with nautical and scientific draftsmen, and as Smith observes ‘were called upon to do similar work.’ ( B. Smith. P3.)

The Endeavour, under the command of Lieutenant James Cook sailed from Plymouth on 26th August, 1768. Cook was to observe the 1769 transit of Venus across the face of the sun and to seek the southern continent. His Secret Instructions set out other tasks, much in the spirit of the Royal Society’s Directions for Seamen bound for far voyages. Among other things Cook was instructed:

‘carefully to observe the Nature of the Soil, and the Products thereof; the Beasts and Fowls that inhabit or frequent it, the Fishes that are to be found in the Rivers or upon the Coast and in what Plenty, and in case you find any Mines, Minerals or valuable stones, you are to bring home Specimens of each, as also specimens of the Seeds of Trees, Fruits and Grains as you may be able to collect, and Transmit them to our Secretary, that We may cause proper examination and Experiments to be made of them.

You are likewise to observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives.

You are to send by all proper Conveyances to the Secretary of the Royal Society, Copies of the Observations you shall have made of the Transit of Venus ; and you are at the same time to send to our secretary, for our information, accounts of your Proceedings and Copys of the drawings and Surveys you shall have made.’ ( Ref. B. Smith, P14.)

‘The baggage in the hold.’

The Great Chain of Being:

It was widely considered by naturalists and writers of the period that Captain Cook’s scientists, aided by his seamen, would gradually complete the picture of the universe as a vast, ordered chain of Being which had been partially known to man from early times. As a concept, the chain of being derived from Plato and Aristotle, developed during the Middle Ages and reached full expression in early modern Neo-Platonism.

The chain of Being was believed to be composed of a great number of hierarchical links from the most basic elements, minerals and metals to plants, upward to animal life, on to humans, thence to the highest immutable perfection, in other words, God. Each link in the chain was divided into sub-groups, for example, wild beasts like lions were superior to domesticated animal and docile animals, fish came below birds and fish sub-divided from other sea creatures. The cosmology rested on a platonic sense of permanence and inviolability of species, a cosmology expressed by Linnaeus, the most influential naturalist of the eighteenth century:

‘If we consider the generation of Animals, we find that each produces an off-spring after its own kind … and that from each proceeds a germ of the same nature with its parent; so that all living things, plants, animals, and even mankind themselves form one ‘chain of universal Being’, from the beginning to the end of the world; in this sense truly may it be said that there is nothing new under the sun.’ (Cited B. Smith. P167.)

Antipodes Inversion:

Opinion about whether a geographical antipodes exists at all depends on views concerning the shape of the world as sphere or flat earth. With the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire, one of the problems that Ancient Greece and Rome had investigated, a spherical world and existence of an antipodes was largely supplanted in the medieval period by Christian doctrine based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Important in keeping alive the theory of a geocentric universe and spherical earth were the observations of Pliny the Elder, influencing other monks like the Venerable Bede and mathematician Gerbert of Aurillac who became Pope Syllvester 11, which over time led to its reinstatement. Ref: From Rome to the Antipodes: the medieval form of the world, Amelia Sparavigna.

Regarding an antipodes, Pliny notes the gulf between the learned and the vulgar:

‘We maintain that men are dispersed over every part of the earth, that they stand with their feet turned towards each other, that the vault of heaven appears alike to all of them , and that they, all of them, appear to tread equally on the middle of the earth. If any one should ask, why those situated opposite us do not fall, we directly ask in return, whether those on the opposite side do not wonder that we do not fall.’ (In.Sparavigna. P2.)

What lingered post the acceptance of a geocentric universe, was the view of an antipodes as an absurdity, like Lewis Carol’s world down the rabbit hole, a place of inverted logic and inverted physical phenomena. This blinkered view sometimes acted as a constraint on objective investigation. John Byron in his ‘Journal of his Circumnavigation., 1764.’ described a Patagonian chief ‘of gigantic size’ who seemed to realize the tales of monsters in human shape.’(B. Smith. P34 ) French naturalist Francoise Peron found in New South Wales ‘inversions and contrarieties of nature in a great many phenomena, including floods that were quite unpredictable according to the known laws of meteorology in the northern part of the world. (B.Smith. P 225.)

Classical Ideas of Landscape Art:

The Royal Society’s instructions to travelers to carefully observe’ was easier said than done, think Nietzche’s mordant comment on the claims of realism in painting cited in Ernst Gombrich’s ‘Art and Illusion.’:

‘All nature faithfully! – But by what feint
Can Nature be subdued to art’s constraint?
Her smallest fragment is still infinite!
And so he paints but what he likes in it.
What does he like? He likes what he can paint.’

The illustrations in Bernard Smith’s ‘European Vision and the South Pacific,’ offer many examples of tension between the science of precise botanical draftsmanship and pictorial embellishment into the picturesque and sublime by artists trained in the precepts of classical art. Joshua Reynolds expresses them in the following:

‘A landscape painter certainly ought to study anatomically (if I may use the expression) all objects which he paints; but when he is to turn his studies to use, his skill as a man of genius, will be displayed in showing the general effect … for he applies himself to the imagination, not the curiosity, and works, not for the virtuoso or the naturalist, but for the common observer of life and Nature.’ ( In B. Smith P111.)

The Noble Savage:

The Royal Society’s instructions ‘to observe the Genius and Temper of the Natives’ also presented problems of observation, accounts and illustrations colored by the artist’s classical learning. Influenced by Plato’s theory of forms and ‘back to Golden Age’ purity, a south-seas’ portrait was often invested with classical dignity, as ‘the noble savage.’ Sometimes, where observation loosened the bonds of classical thought and illustrations were insufficiently ‘noble,’ the illustration would be subjected to the idealism of engravers, as well.

“Inhabitants of Terra Del – Alexander Buchan”
“Indians of Terra del Feuge – engraving, Bartolozzi”

The clash of the classic and the exotic.

Accounts of voyages to the Pacific, Cook’s three voyages and those by the European and American expeditions of the first half of the nineteenth century provide a wealth of evidence as to the way the sciences of visible nature, geology, botany, meteorology, anthropology and the like, imposed their interests upon the graphic arts and a classical point of view.

The classical vision of the noble savage had never been the single stereotype imposed on native peoples. Naval captains William Dampier and La Perouse, for example, viewed native peoples as inferior beings. Later, close up observation of native practices not in keeping with classic idealism, and Captain Cook’s death at the hands oh natives of the Islands of Hawaii, provoked Christian evangelist attitudes to native peoples as primitive savages in need of saving.

By the first half of the nineteenth century greater care was being taken to meet the requirements of science in depiction of native peoples, not only in drawings and modeling but with the new invention of photography being brought into service to render illustrations accurately. The publication of Dumont d’Urville’s ‘Voyage Au Pole Sud, 1842-7,’ includes these photographs of lithographs by Leveille after busts modeled by Bisson. The portraits are of natives of Van Dieman’s Land, Worraddey, chief of the island of Briny, Troggarnanna, last surviving member of her tribe.


The objectivity with which natives came to be depicted is paralleled in illustrations of landscape and documentation of flora and fauna. In landscape illustration we see the documentary requirements of science and the picturesque of the classical arts battling it out in the paintings and writings of William Hodges who accompanied Cook on his Second Voyage. Hodges’ landscapes show his attempts to capture the different quality of light in his Southern voyages while still adopting classical stereotypes of the picturesque and the sublime.

With reference to the difficulties of applying the precepts of classical art to the exotic, Hodges, like Joshua Reynolds’ also cited ‘perfect knowledge’ of the art, and judgement and fancy to choose his subjects and predispose them to advantage, but by adding a third point of submitting the imagination to the strict guidance of cool judgement’ he gives Reynolds’ theory a geographical twist. (B.Smith P78.)

45865-pcA View of Cape Stevens, New Zealand – William Hodges

In later landscape painting we see closer renditions of typical landscape replacing the idealized, for example, in paintings by John William Lewin, such as ‘Campbell River,’ painted when Lewin accompanied Governor Macquarie, in 1815,on a sightseeing expedition to the Blue Mountains, New South Wales. These paintings dispensed with the contriving of picturesque composition and illustrated the openness of foliage of Australian Eucalypt trees that do not completely shroud the background.

CampbellRiverCampbell River, New South Wales – John Lewin

Naturalists and illustrators became increasingly less dominated by great chain of Being and neo-classical theories of art and more influenced by empirical habits of vision as they studied and illustrated unfamiliar flora and fauna. From a large cast of scientific observers in the South Pacific, mentioning just three or four:

One of the important influences brought to bear on travelers was the scientific traveler Alexander von Humboldt who, in his writings. described the influence that the paintings of William Hodges had on his own career. Humboldt came to view the world as made up of different climatic zones and advised how written description, landscape painting and botanical illustrations could be used to give Europeans a better idea of the multiformity of nature. Humboldt’s books were widely read including by Charles Darwin. By 1810, it was said that, with the exception of Napoleon, Humboldt was the most famous man in Europe.

Another observer was Ferdinand Bauer. No one was abler than Bauer to illustrate nature’s multiformity in the South Seas. When Matthew Flinders sailed from England in the sloop Investigator in 1801 with instructions to chart the coasts of Australia, the influence of Flinders’ patron, Sir Joseph Banks, now President of the Royal Society, is evident in his instructions to bring back to bring back ‘such papers as the Naturalists and Painters think to send home.’ ( In B.Smith P189.) The choice of naturalist for the task was, another of Bank’s protégés, Robert Brown, accompanying him, botanical designer, Ferdinand Bauer, both masters in their fields. Bauer, a botanist of considerable ability himself, sought to reveal both the beauty of the plant and its scientific structure in his drawings and using a magnifying glass, made a practice of drawing, not only the leaf and flower, but also sections and diagrams of buds, seed pods, petals and the roots of plants.

Banksia_coccinea_(Illustrationes_Florae_Novae_Hollandiae_plate_3) Florae Novae Hollandiae – Ferdinand, Bauer

While Brown and Bauer were making a collection pre-eminent collection in botany, zoologist Francois Peron and Charles Lesueur were doing the same in the field of zoology. On a scientific voyage to the Mauritius in 1800 by order of Napoleon, the drawing abilities of Lesueur, who had not been appointed as an artist, quickly became apparent in his drawings of fish and phosphorescent animals.

charles-alexandre_lesueur_museum_dhistoire_naturelle_ville_du_havre_4Scyphomeduse- Charles Lesueur

Sea-change rich and strange.

Confronted with problems presented by the multiformities of nature in the South Pacific, naturalists were finding it difficult to classify their materials according to the presuppositions of a great chain of Being, The three scientists whose efforts to establish organic evolution as a scientific history of life on earth themselves spent formative years as naturalists on scientific voyages to the South Pacific.

James Hooker, appointed naturalist to Ross’s Expedition to the South Pole in 1839, who greatly admired the work of Ferdinand Bauer, employed himself in the work at which Charles Lesueur had excelled, the dissection and drawing of tiny marine animals. In the course of his work he became convinced that his earlier belief in the immutability of species was false. ( B. Smith. P 315.)

The influence of the Pacific upon Charles Darwin’s other great friend, Thomas Huxley, was not such that it led directly to evolutionary theory, but his own work, as assistant naturalist aboard the Rattlesnake on a survey in tropical waters in 1846, led him to fundamental discoveries of the morphology of marine animals and the conclusion ‘that biological individuality was a process; that individuality was not to be expressed in static, but in dynamic terms.’ (B. Smith. P 315.)

Charles Darwin himself recorded how important was his voyage on the Beagle* in influencing the subsequent course of his life, of the parallel’s he discovered in South America’s fossil record and the nature of its living animals and plants that first intimated to him the organic evolutionary possibility of life on earth. Darwin’s later work in the Galapagos and research into coral islands involving exhaustive reading of the literature of Pacific voyages helped confirm his speculations. Darwin’s visit to Australia also promoted questioning, as revealed in a note in his journal during a trip across the Blue Mountains:

‘I had been lying on a sunny bank and was reflecting on the strange character of the animals of the country compared with the rest of the world. An unbeliever in everything beyond his own reason might exclaim, “Two distinct creators must have been at work; their object, however, has been the same, and certainly the end in each is complete.” ( In B.Smith. P314.)

Say, do not expect plain sailing when you put to sea.

An added thought:

Bertram Smith’s book was published just two years before Thomas Kuhn published his essay, ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolution.’ Not sure that Smith’s account of the long journey to evolutionary theory based on observation and detailed empiric studies fits Kuhn’s theory of paradigm containment and that midnight crisis ‘gestalt switch.’

* In the poop deck of the Beagle, adjacent to Darwin’s cabin, a library of four hundred books, books on sea voyages that included the voyages of Alexander von Humboldt and books on natural history and geology….Url Library on the Beagle.



  1. This makes for a good, absorptive browse. I always like a passive, finicky pic with my reading. Love the jellyfish. Should be more of this sort of thing.

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