Waltzing Matilda: Science, Art & Exploration in the late Georgian period

I recently gave a talk at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton investigating the relationship between science, art, and exploration during George IV’s lifetime. The talk was inspired by one of the globes on display in the King’s Apartments, which included a depiction of Australia – with most detail concentrated on its coastline. Read on below to find out how the problematic British ‘discovery’ of Australia meant the worlds of Western science, art and exploration collided in the early nineteenth century.

George IV is well known as a flamboyant and extravagant patron of the arts and music. He invested heavily in high-quality craftsmanship for all of his building projects, including the Royal Pavilion, and showed great interest in every stage of his projects, from design to completion. Like all Enlightenment gentlemen of means, George was also interested in the scientific advancements and expansion of geographical knowledge that took place during his lifetime. This interest is reflected in the objects he acquired for the Pavilion, from the ivory veneered furniture in the Long Gallery – which was made in India – to the Japanese porcelain in the Music Room Gallery. As the heir to the throne in tumultuous times, as a young man, George was unable to travel abroad. Instead, he travelled through the objects he acquired for his collections. George collected the world, and it is, therefore, no surprise that his collections include maps, charts, and globes. Two of these globes are on display here at the Royal Pavilion, located in the King’s Apartments. One, dating from 1830, is a celestial globe, depict the stars and constellations that populate the night sky. The other globe is a little closer to home; it is a terrestrial globe created in 1822.

Terrestrial globe on display in the King’s Apartments at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton. © Naomi Daw / Royal Pavilion & Museums

It is this second globe, with coastlines and countries clearly marked, that is the inspiration for my talk today. In particular, I want to focus on the representation of Australia on this globe, and use this depiction as a prism through which we can explore how the worlds of art, science and exploration spectacularly collided during George IV’s lifetime. Our story starts when George was Prince of Wales, and his father, George III was king. The year is 1768 and the Royal Society has successfully petitioned George II to finance a scientific expedition to the Pacific. The aim of this expedition was to observe and study the Transit of Venus across the sun; this would make an accurate calculation of the distance between the Earth and the Sun possible. The Admiralty decided to combine the scientific voyage with a confidential mission to search the South Pacific for signs of the supposed Terra Australis Incognita, the ‘unknown Southern land’. Somehow, the London Gazetteer got wind of both parts of the expedition, writing on 18 August 1768 that ‘the Gentlemen, who are to sail in a few days for George’s Land, the new discovered island in the Pacific, with an intention to observe the Transit of Venus are likewise, we are credibly informed, to attempt some new discoveries in that vast unknown tract, above the latitude 40.’ Lloyd’s Evening Post also announced the expedition, revealing that ‘to-morrow morning, Mr Banks, Dr Solano [sic], with Mr Green, the Astronomer, will set out for Deal to embark on board the Endeavour, Capt. Cook, for the South Seas, under the direction of the Royal Society, to observe the Transit of Venus next summer, and to make discoveries to the South and West of Cape Horn”.

Nathaniel Dance, Captain James Cook, 1776. Oil on canvas. Royal Museums Greenwich.

The command of HM Bank Endeavour, the ship that left Plymouth Dockyard in 1768, was not initially offered to James Cook. The Royal Society had suggested giving command of the Endeavour to the Scottish Geographer, Alexander Dalrymple, who thought that there were 50 million inhabitants of the ‘Southern Continent’. In exchange for accepting the command, Dalrymple requested to be commissioned as a captain. However, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Edward Hawke, refused, saying he would rather cut off his right hand than give command of a naval vessel to someone not educated as a seaman. The Royal Society and the Royal Navy had reached an impasse, which was broken when the Admiralty suggested James Cook. Cook had joined the Merchant Navy as a teenager before joining the Royal Navy in 1755. A talented mathematician and cartographer, Cook had surveyed and mapped the Saint Lawrence River in Quebec. Here, he produced detailed charts during the Siege of Quebec that caught the attention of the Admiralty and the Royal Society. Cook was, therefore, acceptable to both parties. He was promoted to Lieutenant and named as commander of the expedition.

On 26 August 1768, the Endeavour departed from Plymouth Dockyard, stopping in Rio de Janeiro between 15 November and 2 December 1768 to carry out essential repairs and re-provision. The Endeavour rounded Cape Horn, and continued its journey westward, arriving in Tahiti and docking at Matavai Bay on 13 April 1769. Over the following three months the astronomer, Charles Green, observed the Transit of Venus. When observations were complete, it was time to carry out the second part of the voyage, to proceed southwards in search of the ‘Southern Continent’. The Tahitian navigator Tupaia was welcomed aboard the Endeavour, at the insistence of the ship’s botanist Joseph Banks, who argued that Tupaia’s knowledge of Pacific geography would prove invaluable to the expedition. In his journal, Banks describes how

The Captain refuses to take [Tupaia] on his own account … I therefore have resolved to take him … I do not know why I may not keep him as a curiosity, as well as some of my neighbours do lions and tigers at a larger expense than he will probably ever put me to; the amusement I shall have in his future conversation and the benefit he will be to this ship as well as well as what he may be if another should be sent to these seas, will I think fully repay me.

Banks’ language – describing Tupaia as a ‘curiosity’ – is problematic, but this entry explains his motivation for employing the navigator on board the Endeavour.

West, Benjamin, 1738-1820; Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), 1st Bt, GCB, PRS
Benjamin West, Portrait of Joseph Banks, 1773. Oil on canvas. Usher Art Gallery, Lincoln.

And Banks was proved correct. With Tupaia’s assistance, the Endeavour and her crew reached New Zealand/Aotearoa on 6 October 1769; after Abel Tasman and his crew they were only the second group of Europeans to arrive on the archipelago. Under Cook’s command the Endeavour performed the first successful circumnavigation of New Zealand/Aotearoa, collecting measurements, creating charts, acquiring botanical specimens, and ethnographic items. This is one of the points where the worlds of science, art and exploration collide: here, in Benjamin West’s portrait of Joseph Banks. In this painting, Banks is shown surrounded by items he brought back from his travels on the Endeavour. In the top left of the image we can see a Maori spear and a headdress that belonged to a Tahitian chief. On the bottom right of the painting are books on botany and botanists’ tools. Banks himself is standing in a heroic position, draped in a Maori flax cloak.

After leaving New Zealand, the Endeavour began to head west on its return journey. Cook set course for Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) but the Endeavour was forced off-course by heavy gales, towards the east coast of Australia. Then known as New Holland, the coast of Australia had not been effectively explored by Westerners; Cook’s expedition on the Endeavour and the Admiralty’s instruction to search for the terra australis incognita provided the perfect opportunity to carry this out. On 19 April 1770, land was sighted; Cook ‘Named it Point Hicks, because Leuitt Hicks was the first who discover’d this land.’ In his journal Cook describes how parts of the coast look like Plymouth Sound, and ‘what we have as yet seen of this land appears rather low and not very hilly, the face of the Country green and woody but the sea shore is all a white sand.’ Joseph Banks also records in his journals how ‘with the first day light this morn the Land was seen, at 10 it was pretty plainly to be observd; it made in sloping hills, coverd in part with trees or bushes, but interspersd with large tracts of sand.’ Banks continued his romantic description of the Australian coastline in his journal entry for the next day, 20 April 1770, where ‘the countrey this morn rose in gentle sloping hills which had the appearance of the highest fertility, every hill seemd to be cloth’d with trees of no mean size; at noon a smoak was seen a little way inland and in the Evening several more.’

Ten days later, the Endeavour  found a suitable natural harbour, dropping anchor at Botany Bay. As they entered the Bay, Cook describes the crew’s first, brutal encounter with Aboriginal Australians. Cook and the crew saw ‘Men, women and children on the south shore abreast of the Ship, to which place I went in the boats in hopes of speaking with them accompanied by Mr Banks, Dr Solander and Tupia [sic]; as we approached the shore they all made off except two Men who seemed resolved to oppose our landing …’ Cook misreads the signals from the men on the shore; when he attempts to land the boat on the shore, and I quote, ‘they again came to oppose us upon which I fired a musket between the two which had no other effect than to make them retire back where bundles of their darts lay, and one of them took up a stone and threw at us which caused my fireing a second Musquet load with full shott’. Cook goes on to describe how some of the shot hit the Aboriginal man, but did not injure him. In his journal entry Cook is attempting to justify the violence of this first encounter; he was under specific instructions from the Admiralty to work with the peoples he encountered on the expedition.

botany bay
Chart of Botany Bay.

The Endeavour continued up the east coast of Australia, from what is now New South Wales up in to Queensland. In June 1770, the Endeavour ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef, just off the coast of Queensland. This caused significant damage that needed immediate repair before the expedition could proceed. The repairs would take six months: this was frustrating for Cook, who wanted to proceed back to Cape Horn and return to Britain as soon as possible, but for Joseph Banks and his team of naturalists, the delay was a godsend. It provided an opportunity for them to gather a more extensive collections of specimens and information about Australian flora and fauna in situ. On 22 June Banks’ information included records of a creature completely new to Western eyes: an animal ‘as large as a greyhound, of a mouse colour and very swift’.

This animal was the kangaroo. After several days spent exploring the Australian bush, Banks eventually saw a kangaroo for himself. In his journal entry for 25 June 1770, Banks writes how ‘in gathering plants today I myself had the good fortune to see the beast so much talkd of, tho but imperfectly; he was not only like a grey hound in size and running but had a longtail, as long as any grey hounds; what to liken him to I could not tell, nothing certainly that I have seen at all resembles him.’ Banks’ artist, Sydney Parkinson, had the opportunity to observe kangaroos at length, producing several detailed drawings of the marsupial. Parkinson’s drawings, written descriptions, and the specimens brought back to Britain on the Endeavour meant Joseph Banks was able to commission a painting of the kangaroo – and another animal discovered in Australia, the dingo. Blurring the boundaries between art and science, Banks chose George Stubbs, the renowned horse-painter and George IV’s favourite animal painter, to produce the images of the kangaroo and dingo. To get an idea of the kangaroo’s dimensions and the position of its limbs and tail, Stubbs is supposed to have sewn up a kangaroo specimen and inflated it!

The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo) 1772 by George Stubbs. ZBA5754
George Stubbs, The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), 1772. Oil paint and beeswax on mahogany. Royal Museums Greenwich.

On his return to Britain, Cook – and his crew – were lauded in the press as heroes. The crew’s scientific discoveries, the recording of the Transit of Venus, the ethnographic items, and the natural specimens they brought back to Britain, caused a sensation. Both Cook and Banks published academic papers and their journals. Cook made two further voyages to the South Seas and the Pacific, spending nine out of the eleven years between 1768 and 1779 at sea; over this 11 year period his behaviour got ever more erratic and his mental health dcclined.. In 1779 Cook was killed whilst attempting to kidnap Kalaniʻōpuʻu-a-Kaiamamao, the King of Hawai’i. Banks became President of the Royal Society, High Sheriff of Lincolnshire, and a Knight of the Order of the Bath. His health began to decline in the early nineteenth century; and he died on 19 June 1820 at his home in London.

Thank you for reading! My next talk will be taking place at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton on Thursday 19 December at 12pm (free with admission). Here, I’ll be speaking about Queen Victoria’s seasonal sojourns in Brighton. Do stop by!

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