Arctic Ambiance

John Webber’s The Resolution Beating Though the Ice, 1778
John Webber’s The Resolution Beating Though the Ice, 1778

The other day, husband Dave and I couldn’t get our SUV tail light unscrewed. After trying to drill out what we thought were chewed threads, we headed to Anchorage T-Tops and Automotive to see Butch Barney, owner and professor extraordinaire of all things auto body. Turned out, what we thought was a worn phillips-head was some kind of hexagonal/octagonal screw which Barney says is only used to confuse customers.

We used to frequent T-Tops when we had teenagers who committed fender benders, often arriving at Barney’s in tears. Once, he performed miracles on a used Subaru which son Elliott drove when he worked on Lisa Murkowski’s first senatorial campaign.  Last week, while we happily only needed to unscrew a tail lamp and order a few broken plastic bits, Barney entertained us with his high seas adventures or fishing this summer aboard his Seward yacht —  Pug Tug.

OK, I’m not a stranger to boats as I summered on Martha’s Vineyard, the ’60s, racing day sailers. Twice a week, dad would say, “it’s time to go to sea.” We’d untie our Whaler and motor to the harbor, discussing the wind velocity and our strategy for starting.  Dad didn’t like ocean racing on sloops—“too damp,” he would say. He preferred the shore at five-ish for a hot bath followed by a gin and tonic. Holding his drink in one hand, he would send ‘wiffle balls’ flying across the lawn with an old wooden putter, while he’d review the day’s race and how ‘I’ could improve.

Returning to post-Millennium Alaska, Barney’s boat has all the fix’ns: shower, recliner, and even a fireplace. He totes survival gear and a raft with rations too. “Isn’t this cheating?” I teased, as he told us his fish finders went beyond mere sonar to a camera that descends several hundred feet into the deep. Barney videos sea life and replays it for guests on his wide screen television bolted to the stern of his thirty-six footer.

The following day, I called Barney to thank him for the ‘TLC’ when I suddenly realized what a contrast Pug Tug was to Captain Cook’s HMS Resolution. “Can you imagine,” I said to Barney, “what Cook would have done with the gear on your boat!” Barney and I mused over the realization we both hadn’t a clue how Cook navigated, let alone in stormy weather when the stars weren’t visible.

Arctic Ambitions, at the Anchorage Museum (thru Sept 7) presents Captain Cook’s third voyage (1776-1779) which attempted to locate the Northwest Passage. This exhibition explains navigational puzzles and confirms what an extraordinary man James Cook was. The son of a Scottish farm labourer residing in Yorkshire, Cook began as a merchant naval apprentice, working on a coal barge between Tyne and London. Service in the Royal Navy during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) advanced his career.

John Webber’s Sea Horses, c 1781-83
John Webber’s Sea Horses, c 1781-83

Back at Arctic Ambitions, carpeting with a pattern mimicking barren rocks or ice blocks ushers viewers towards displays resembling ribbing found inside eighteenth century ships. These tables hold maps and prints–genuine and digitally recreated, navigational tools and even a book about scurvy. Abstractions of ship rigging hang from dowels or faux ‘yardarms’ throughout and add to the feel of being on a Cook ship. There’s a looping video that explains how to navigate, and another that explains how Global Warming has finally made the Northwest Passage a reality.  Jig-sawed Natives and European explorers interact in several ‘Disney-esque’ tableaux, showing what it was like to land on a beach– a meet’n greet with aboriginals. Arctic Ambitions presents ‘truth’ about the plight of indigenous peoples, as many suffered to near extinction from plundering adventurers who left deadly diseases. Cook wrote about the abuse of women and children; when his diaries were first published, pages were removed. Watercolors and Native artifacts are in mint condition given their several hundred years of age.

It is hard to imagine how European explorers produced detailed art works when they endured cramped conditions, crappy food, bad weather and personal illness.  My California friends Larry and Sue Vescera were visiting Alaska and accompanied us to the show. Larry commented, in spite of these often crude work conditions, artists had ‘time’ on their hands to create.

Artist, John Webber on Cook’s Third Voyage (1776-1779)

John Webber (1751-1793), accompanied Cook on his third voyage.  Webber was an Englishman who studied painting in Paris and Bern. He’s thought to have been the first European artist to make watercolors on Kauai and the Big Island. When the voyage moved onto to Nootka Sound, British Columbia, Webber took out his paints which eventually became published engravings back in London, 1784. Webber was a member of the Royal Academy, exhibiting over fifty works between 1784 and 1792. His Death of Captain Cook (1784) was both highly renowned and Romanticized. His portrayal reminds spectators of Benjamin West’s Death of General Wolfe (1770) or the many renderings of Lord Nelson’s demise (Barnett 235). After Cook’s 1779 Hawaiian death, Charles Clerke assumed command of the expedition as it once again headed for another attempt at the Northwest Passage with Webber on board.

Although it is obvious that Webber scrutinized plants and animals, the botanist-surgeon William Anderson conducted many scientific experiments on the third voyage (Barnett 37).  In February 1778, Cook landed at Waimea, Kauai and took both Anderson and Webber ashore to describe in pen and pencil their surroundings (Barnett 236).  The Arctic Ambitions catalog stresses that Webber’s compositions were often altered when watercolors were copied or engraved, thus challenging authenticity while de-emphasizing original place and the indigenous accoutrements (Barnett 134, 141).

‘True to nature,’ is a theme that runs throughout eighteenth century English landscaping. It was the nineteenth century Modernists who challenged this notion by insisting the individual artists’ perceptions were paramount. Perhaps Webber’s decisions to alter a landscape were done for selling points. Maybe correct Native dress wasn’t considered important. However, ‘true to nature,’ seems to have been challenged decades before  Impressionists.

In 1778 Webber was out with his pencils drawing Nootka Sound, as Cook insisted on acute drawings ‘within and without doors’ (Barnett 135). Once when drawing the inside of a Native house, a man wielding a knife prevented Webber from rendering figurations until he handed over his coat buttons (Barnett 140-141).

John Webber’s A View in King George’s Sound, 1778
John Webber’s A View in King George’s Sound, 1778

This poses questions. Did Webber initially ask the inhabitants if it was OK to draw their abode? Was it understood that drawing spooked those who perceived the importance of trace of a person or village which might vanish if copied?  Was the knife wielding Native only looking for remunerations and thus cared little for his ancestral spirits? True, buttons had trading value, but was our Native caving to Western greed? When I was at the University of Alaska, drawing Native objects without knowing their significance was only occasionally contemplated.

Russian fur traders living among Natives tried rationing metal objects considered retaliatory. Webber’s drawing revealed that houses in Unalaska Island indeed lacked Western implements, thus helping future archeology (Barnett 163).  Another occasion (1779), artist John Webber proved resourceful as he spoke fluent German with Kamchatka Russians who provided provisions and entertainment in exchange for English grog (Barnett 81-82). Webber collected artifacts: harpoons and masks; he sent a collection to his ancestral home of Bern and to the British Museum (Barnett 174). Interest in non-European cultures began permeating European artworks. Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, Bartok’s music, and Picasso’s abstracts thread to earlier curiosities.

The exhibition, Arctic Ambitions has great artwork and navigational tools that were so well constructed they’ve become aesthetics in their own right. Alas, the show’s presentation could have used a bit more polish. Wall tags were often missing while the gallery lighting cast shadows.  Cook’s diary resides in what looks like a round coffee table. When visitors lean over to glance at the tiny print, they are reprimanded.  And, a large globe depicting Cook’s voyages has been broken for weeks. Reality check, tourists run through exhibits on their way to the gift shop and need big and bold signage.  Sadly, miscellaneous arctic explorations were thrown into a back gallery as was John Webber’s oil painting of Captain Cook (1780) — leftovers in a fridge. And why wasn’t there a demo catalog in the exhibition?

The Art of John Webber

The following four Webber artworks were taken from the catalog (Barnett 13, 38, 134, 246).

John Webber’s watercolor, A Human Sacrifice (circa 1780-1784) depicts a Polynesian ritual of roasting a commoner who had done something.  White explorers weren’t the only ones to commit heinous crimes. Cultures, out of context, are hard to comprehend. The breeziness found in the background trees is characteristic of eighteenth century European landscape’s horizontal bands: fore, middle and backgrounds.

Webber’s watercolor Sea Horses (circa 1781-1783), shows White explorers shooting walruses who apparently aren’t alarmed. His ice is rather flowery but his clouds have transparent and opaque moments, reminiscent of seventeenth century Dutch landscapes. Voyages needed the meat, oil and hides. Killing of these magnificent creatures contrasts with bbq-ing the Tahitian.

John Webber’s watercolor A View in King George’s Sound (1778) was constructed in British Columbia but its aesthetics are European, unlike Gauguin who combined cultures. The piece has the viewer optically entering the foreground, meandering to the faded mountains in the background. Natives in the front are insignificant compared to the panorama. Dead and growing trees, jagged and worn rocks, would have pleased English taste. During this period, Europeans were traveling to the Swiss Alps and admiring nature’s ‘sublime.’

Webber’s engraving The Resolution Beating Through the Ice (August 1778) is a depiction of Cook’s ship in Icy Cape. In his diary he worries about getting stuck.  The dominance of sky is typically Dutch. The icebergs have been European-ly Romanticized. Today’s viewers are jaded by Modernism’s large flat shapes.  A long ago viewpoint is needed before really appreciating Webber’s work.

John Webber’s A Human Sacrifice, c 1780-84
John Webber’s A Human Sacrifice, c 1780-84

 Arctic Ambitions, the Catalog

Artic Ambitions, the book, has eighteen essays which chronologically follow several hundred years of exploration up to present day Global Warming. Each essay begins with a full page illustration. Maps, artifacts and paintings have easy reference numbers. Free of academic jargon, Arctic Ambitions has adequate scholarly research, making this a good read for museum goers and historians.

James K. Barnett’s essay, George Vancouver’s Survey of the Northwest Coast demonstrates that Vancouver who came after Cook was like the Avis advertisement–he had to try harder. He, like Cook, was skeptical about finding a Northwest Passage.  Apparently he also had a bad press agent when he returned to London. Vancouver was the first European to view Mt McKinley.  In 1870, William Dall, an Alaskan explorer, stated Vancouver’s findings, “have not been excelled by any other navigator” (Barnett 281). Luckily, he had officers with names like Peter Puget and Joseph Whidbey– coincidently are places Alaskans fly over or vacation to (Barnett 269). And Vancouver, British Columbia is where summer cruises to Alaska begin.

Barnett, an Alaska attorney and historian, writes about other eighteenth century explorations to the West Coast.  The French under Jean-Francoise Galaup visited Hawaii and Alta California while the Spaniard, Alejandro Malaspina docked in Monterey, California.  Hunting sea-otters for couture, and the continual itch to discover a Northwest Passage, continue to fascinate. (Barnett 263-287).

Arctic Ambitions (thru Sept 7 ); travels to the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma  Oct 2015;  Arctic Ambitions, Edited by James K. Barnett and David L. Nicandri, available at the Anchorage Museum or Amazon.

Jean Bundy is a writer/painter living in Anchorage. She holds degrees from The University of Alaska, The University of Chicago and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is a member of AICA/USA. Jean is a PhD candidate with IDSVA. Her whaling abstracts and portraits have been shown from Barrow to New York City.


She can be reached at: 38144 [at] alaska [dot] net
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