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Angus Trumble on the famous portrait of James Cook — and what might have been if Joseph Banks commissioned Joshua Reynolds to paint the celebrated captain rather than himself.

Oil painting showing a British naval captain, seated beside a small table, gazing to the left. The man wears a navy blue coat and off-white breeches and waistcoast, with gold-coloured buttons. His right arm rests on a map, the corner of which he holds in his left hand.  - click to view larger image

I write rather briefly about the famous portrait of Captain James Cook RN (1776, National Maritime Museum Greenwich) by Nathaniel Dance in the catalogue of the Endeavour Voyage exhibition (forthcoming), but before I had a chance to look at it long and hard in the flesh, and only for the second time in my life.

Like any such work of art, the subject of Dance's portrait being in so many ways more famous than the artist or this particular painting, and this image having circulated and re-circulated for so long and to such an extent and in so many different media and forms, it is almost impossible to approach it with fresh eyes. It helps to know a little more about this most unusual painter.

Nathaniel Dance

Nathaniel Dance (1735–1811) was the third son of a well-connected architect, George Dance the Elder. He entered the Merchant Taylors’ School in Suffolk Lane in the City of London in 1744 and went on to be a pupil of Francis Hayman (1708–1776). This carries Dance into that circle of English artists who absorbed strong French Rococo influence in the middle of the 18th century, above all the young Thomas Gainsborough.

Following in the footsteps of many other young English painters, Dance undertook the Grand Tour to Italy in 1754 but, having ample resources at his disposal, remained there for more than ten years. In Rome he met and became hopelessly infatuated with fellow artist Angelica Kauffmann. He also spent time assisting the flamboyant Roman portrait painter Pompeo Batoni, whose influence brightened up Dance’s palette and put him in touch with a grand clientele, including Prince Edward Augustus, Duke of York and Albany, the younger brother of the future King George III.

Portrait practice

In 1761, Dance was elected in absentia to be a member of the Society of Artists, which ramshackle association only a few years later the Royal Academy of Arts was designed to supersede, in an effort to uplift and professionalise the London art world. Returning to England in 1765, Dance established himself with a busy and successful portrait practice, despite longing to distinguish himself as a history painter instead — the highest of the genres soon to be embedded in the Royal Academy, of which he was one of the 22 founding members (1768) under the presidency of Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Dance’s standing among his direct contemporaries was therefore high. In 1769, at the Academy’s first annual exhibition, he exhibited a pair of full-length portraits of King George III and Queen Charlotte (Uppark, West Sussex). In 1771, he painted David Garrick as Richard III (Stratford-on-Avon, Town Hall) and, five years later, shortly before the third circumnavigation, Sir Joseph Banks commissioned Dance to paint this portrait of James Cook.

Marriage and baronetcy

By the mid-1770s, however, having attained financial success and independence Dance’s output declined sharply. He seems to have been that not particularly unusual 18th-century phenomenon, an artist who was never driven by any pressing personal need to create. In common with many other jobbing painters, some of them extremely able, portraiture was something Dance did merely for a living, albeit a very good one.

More, his output effectively ceased altogether upon his marriage in 1783 to a wealthy widow — a Mrs Dummer, Harriet, the daughter of Sir Cecil Bisshopp, sixth baronet — at which point he added the surname of Holland to his own. The reason for that choice of name is unclear. The Dances-Holland settled at Little Wittenham Manor in Berkshire. He resigned from the Royal Academy and in 1790 successfully stood for Parliament. He took up the seat of East Grinstead in the House of Commons (1790–1811, with one detour to the seat of Great Bedwyn in Wiltshire, 1802–06). In 1800 the King conferred upon him a baronetcy.

After 1783, Dance-Holland painted only for himself, mainly pleasant little landscapes he seems to have regarded as congruent with his status as an English country gentleman of means. And those means were enormous: Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland Bt died without issue, leaving estate valued at more than £200,000. Lady Dance-Holland survived until 1825.

Cook portrait by Dance

How can I put it? The picture is an entirely respectable three-quarter-length portrait of Captain Cook, seated to the left, facing the right. Only in this respect are its relatively spry internal dynamics somewhat unusual.

Cook is wearing his post captain’s full-dress uniform (as it applied in the period 1774–87), consisting of a Navy blue jacket, white waistcoat with gold braid and gold buttons and white breeches. His hair is his own; although powdered, it is not a wig. He holds his own chart of the Southern Ocean on the table and with his right forefinger points to the east coast of Australia. His left thumb and finger lightly hold the other edge of the chart over his knee. His 'cocked hat' or tricorn with the conventional cockade sits on the table behind him to the left on top of a substantial book, perhaps his journal (National Library of Australia).

A most excellent likeness

Entirely respectable, as I say, and covering all necessary bases in terms of costume, contextual detail, decorum, setting, and so on. David Samwell, the surgeon’s mate aboard Resolution on the second circumnavigation and surgeon aboard Discovery on the third, thought it, 'a most excellent likeness ... and ... the only one I have seen that bears any resemblance to him,' which is reassuring — indeed important eyewitness testimony that should not be overlooked. 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 idealisation, not least the omission of a large burn scar (from 1764) on Cook’s right hand.

Lack-lustre quality

However, at its heart, as a painting, there is a stubbornly lack-lustre quality that you hardly ever see, for example, in Reynolds and Gainsborough. Gainsborough, in particular, was incapable of producing a portrait whose paint film did not positively sing with buoyant energy, with freshness and brio. Dance, by contrast, makes you feel as if he was drawing upon a limited range of almost rote-learned conventions, whilst inspiration-wise my sense is that he was running on empty. No doubt one can and should read into the facial features and Cook’s expression a good deal of defining Yorkshire grit, but there’s a modicum of inertia also, I think, and a hint of blankness to the stare. In the flesh, the effect is really quite strange, the more so because, as I said in the beginning, the painting is so very familiar to us.

Cook sat for his portrait 'for a few hours before dinner' at Banks’s London townhouse on 25 May 1776. It is not known whether Cook sat again before 24 June, the day he set out on his third circumnavigation, never to return. Even if he did manage to sit again for Dance, that was still precious little time for any portrait painter, which may explain some or all of the foregoing. It is axiomatic that the inner life of great portraits is to some extent ignited in direct proportion to the length and/or frequency of the encounters between artist and subject in the studio. The success, the deepening of those encounters will in most cases be reflected in the quality of the portrait.

Banks portrait by Reynolds

It is perhaps a perfect demonstration of the character of the young Joseph Banks that five years earlier, in the midst of the first and immediate wave of celebrity arising from the return to England of Endeavour in July 1771, this wealthy young man should have made it a matter of priority to commission a portrait of himself from Sir Joshua Reynolds (1771–73, National Portrait Gallery, London), but left in abeyance the commissioning of any portrait of James Cook, only engaging Nathaniel Dance at almost the last possible moment before Cook’s final departure.

It is one of the misfortunes arising from the history of the market for European portraiture that we lack anything but the most workmanlike portraits of certain great people, for example Mozart, the Brontës, Beethoven and Jane Austen.

If only Banks had in 1771 temporarily suppressed his superabundant pride and chosen instead to commission from Reynolds a portrait of Cook.

In a way, Banks and Reynolds were made for each other. Both men nurtured in themselves an immoderate degree of personal vanity, and in Reynolds’s case this has proven to be vitally important. His surviving appointment books and ledgers document down to particular sittings most of his extant portraits, and show that, like Sir Thomas Lawrence in the following generation, the great and the good were for decades beating a path to his front door. There is no doubt that, bolstered by his presidency of the Royal Academy, Reynolds knew that these documents would serve posterity, and duly made the necessary arrangements.

Reynolds adopted the conceit, borrowed from Rembrandt’s The Syndics (1662, Rijksmuseum), of showing Banks interrupted and beginning to rise from his chair. The motto clearly legible on one of his letters is a phrase taken from Horace, 'Cras ingens iterabimus aequor,' which means, 'Tomorrow we shall sail the vast deep again.' At this stage (late 1771), that was Banks’s firm intention, to sail with Cook on his second circumnavigation aboard Resolution and to take with him the artist Johan Zoffany, which would have been very interesting — ultimately William Hodges sailed instead — but his plan was eventually frustrated by Their Lordships of the Admiralty and by Cook himself. The nearest Banks got to another epic adventure was a shorter, briefer voyage to Iceland, July–October 1772, apparently his last. In the circumstances, the fact that when the painting left his studio in 1773 or 1774 Reynolds had retained the quote from Horace represents a sort of melancholy rebuke on the part of Banks, and not so much a bold statement of intent.

Reynolds’s pocket and appointment books plot Banks’s many interactions with the artist, starting in the week beginning 18 November 1771. He kept appointments on 12 and 13 December (both at noon), 16 and 18 December (both at 10 o’clock), and onwards into 1772: on 15 January at 10, in the week of 20 January, on 24 February at noon, on 26 February at four (possibly a dinner invitation), 29 February at 10, 4 March at 10, and 22 December at nine. Appointments continued into 1773, on 26 March at noon and on 7 December at four (possibly a sitting followed by dinner). This appears to have been Banks’s last sitting. The sittings were no more numerous than Reynolds arranged for many of his subjects, but they were spread out longer than most, suggesting that alone in his studio Reynolds devoted a great deal of time and energy to the project. A payment of 70 guineas on Banks’s behalf was eventually noted in Reynolds’s ledger on 15 January 1774. This was Reynolds’s standard price for a half-length portrait measuring 50 by 40 inches (127.3 x 102 cm) — the virtue of the old imperial measurements, still in use in the United States, is that often they reveal standard dimensions.

In the annals of Endeavour, therefore, much rides on the comparison between Dance’s iconic James Cook the Yorkshireman, the stern naval officer and distinguished cartographer, and Reynolds’s far softer Banks, a much younger man with a lively intellect and the leisure with which to exercise it, both made possible by rank and £6000 a year.

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