New worlds drawn on an imperial canvas

William Hodges 1744-1797
October 1, 2004

The exhibition of the paintings of William Hodges in Inigo Jones's Queen's House at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich is the first international celebration of his work. Although Hodges has been acclaimed as the precursor of Turner and Ruskin in his "fearless attempts to break with neoclassical formulas and to paint with a natural vision", his painting is only meagrely represented in the Tate Gallery and makes no appearance at all in the National Gallery. Despite a remarkable career, few people know who he is.

To quote the handsome and informative catalogue, Hodges was "the first and the last professional European artist to have encountered a civilisation as yet entirely unaffected by European ways". This came about because he accompanied Captain Cook on his second voyage (1772-75) and painted scenes from it for the Admiralty. Then he painted India in the 1780s.

After a laudatory foreword by Sir Richard Attenborough, an observer of the cultures of the Pacific and a long-time admirer of Hodges, comes an exemplary introduction and discussion of Hodges as an "artist of empire" by Geoff Quilley. He points out that Hodges' importance as an artist lies in four areas. He was the first professional landscape artist (British or otherwise) to represent such extensive global territories so profusely and on such a scale. Second, Hodges figures crucially, in the history of 18th-century colonialism, at the pivot between the colonial and metropolitan spheres. Third, his career flourished at a time not only of imperial expansion but also of explosive growth of the British art world.

Last, he is interesting because after his death he was largely forgotten and, later, in effect excised from the orthodox history of British art as told by 20th-century academics.

Hodges was not the first choice to accompany Cook on his second great voyage. Joseph Banks was selected by the Admiralty because he had travelled with Cook on his first Pacific voyage three years before. However, Banks, now a celebrity of some consequence, demanded "a team of 13 servants, musicians and cooks" and had also engaged the fashionable society painter John Zoffany. Cook's vessel, Resolution , had to build an additional deck for Banks' entourage, which rendered the ship unseaworthy. When the Navy Board ordered the superfluous additions removed, an outraged Banks withdrew from the expedition and took Zoffany with him. The Admiralty hired the young and relatively unknown landscape painter Hodges to replace him.

After Cook's return in 1775, Hodges was retained by the Admiralty to paint more oils and to supervise official engravings of the voyage. When this contract ended, Hodges journeyed to India, where he worked under the patronage of the first Governor-General, Warren Hastings. He exhibited his Indian paintings when he returned home, publishing 44 of them in a book of Select Views of India drawn on the Spot .

Hodges' sensuously mysterious and picturesque South Sea paintings, his drawings of Pacific islanders, his portraits and his haunting visions of 18th-century India shed new light on our perceptions of the British Empire.

Although he aimed to present "truth" as the universal premise on which his art is based, his vision was an imperial one, "paternalistic [and] broadly Anglican". His intention was "to give the manners of mankind in the varied shades from the savage in the wilds to the highly civilised in the Palace".

In 1794, five years after the French Revolution, Hodges exhibited in London two contrasting moral landscapes, the Effects of Peace and the Consequences of War . The following year, the exhibition was forced to close as being "subversive to the war effort against Revolutionary France" on the orders of the Duke of York, who had been disturbed by two satirical prints of Hodges's paintings made by a cartoonist mocking the Duke's ineffective campaign in Flanders. The disillusioned painter now sold all his work at a considerable loss and left London for Devon, where he invested in a small private bank in Dartmouth. There, Hodges died in relative obscurity, surrounded by rumours of suicide, on the day after the bank collapsed.

Christopher Ondaatje is a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery and the author of books on exploration. "William Hodges 1744-1797: The Art of Exploration" is at the National Maritime Museum until November 21.

William Hodges 1744-1797: First Artist of Empire

Editor - Geoff Quilley and John Bonehill
Publisher - Yale University Press for the National Maritime Museum
Pages - 212
Price - £40.00
ISBN - 0 300 10376 X

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