CAPTAIN Cook was already dead, murdered and dismembered by locals, when his official artist painted his crew fending off buffalo on the Vietnamese island of Côn Son.
John Webber’s picture would merit barely a footnote on an inventory of art, but in Whitby, where Cook’s memorial museum has been constructed in his former harbourside lodgings, it is considered priceless.
The watercolour had been in Australia for much of the last century, but when it was acquired by a dealer in London and put on sale, a grant from the nation’s art fundraising charity helped bring it to the port Cook called home.
The pages of the Art Fund’s annual report, published yesterday, are a catalogue of pictures and objet d’art that might otherwise have slipped under the creative radar.
As well as Webber’s document of Cook’s third and final voyage of discovery, the funding list includes John Sell Cotman’s 19th century landscape, Greta Woods, painted near Ingleton in the Yorkshire Dales.
Cotman is considered one of the greatest British watercolourists, and produced some of his finest work during a five-week visit to North Yorkshire in 1805. Many of his paintings are preserved at Leeds Art Gallery, and Greta Woods was an £80,500 addition to the collection. A grant of £25,500 helped finance it.
The Art Fund’s report also reveals the more modest gift of £243 towards the £810 purchase of a pair of hand-made pistols by Doncaster Museum.
Made in the town by Abraham Elston and belonging originally to the Warde-Aldhams family of Hooton Pagnell, they date from a time when Doncaster was a centre for fine art.
“Before the heavy industrial age, it was a very different place,” said Peter Robinson, a curator at the museum. “In the late 1700s it would have been filled with artisan craftsmen making everything from pocket watches to guns and grandfather clocks.”
The Art Fund, which raises its money from subscriptions and donations, awarded grants totalling £4.5m last year, with three-quarters of the money spent outside London.
Earlier this year, it announced it had shortlisted Wakefield’s Hepworth Gallery as its museum of the year, an award won in 2014 by the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The Hepworth is competing with the Tate Modern and three others.
In Whitby, the Captain Cook Memorial Museum had long wanted to get its hands on John Webber’s A View in the Island of Pulo Condore, said Dr Sophie Forgan, chairman of its trustees.
“Webber was Cook’s official artist, in the way a photographer would be used today,” she said.
“We were interested in the final leg of Cook’s voyage after he had been killed by indigenous people in Hawaii. Captain King continued the voyage as Cook had planned.”
A further grant from London’s V&A museum helped secure the new acquisition, which will sit alongside Webber’s painting of Cook’s crew at Krakatoa.