Chief from Santa Christina

Recently I had to prepare a short talk on an object in Te Papa Tongarewa (Museum of New Zealand’s) collections. I chose two prints currently on display on level 5. These both relate to the second voyage of James Cook to the Pacific – this article on the Te Papa website is also about that voyage if you’d like more information.

“We might think armchair travel is relatively new, but it isn’t – it was also popular in the 18th century. If you couldn’t travel you could hopefully at least read about it and look at the pictures. All the images in this area relate to the voyages of James Cook – he made three voyages to the Pacific in the late 18th century, and was killed in Hawai’i on the third voyage. ‘The Chief at Santa Christina’ comes from his second voyage – the voyage artist was William Hodges, but this print was made back in England a few years later from a Hodges drawing or watercolour.

Chief at Sta Christina Te Papa‘The Chief at Santa Christina’, Hall, John (engraver), circa 1777, London. Hodges, William (after), 1774; Bequest of Charles Rooking Carter, 1896; Te Papa Registration number: 1992-0035-1805

Santa Christina, or Tahuata, is one of the Marquesas Islands; today part of French Polynesia, north-east of Tahiti.

The illustrated accounts of the three voyages were very popular, and their popularity spawned many imitations – in France, Holland, Germany, and Italy as well as in England. While the people depicted by Hodges and the other voyage artists were often named (this is Honu); in the popular versions, they were often unnamed people.

This etching (a type of print) is an Italian version, it probably originally came from a book; it is by Andrea Bernieri from 1843. That’s about 70 years after the original voyages and just shows how popular these images remained.

Bernieri Bernieri, Andrea (engraver), 1843, Florence ‘Abitatori ornamenti ec (Marquesas Islands)’, etching; Te Papa Registration number: 1992-0035-2126.

It was common to combine different images – Bernieri has used Hodges’s Santa Christina chief and a separate Hodges-based image of a Santa Christina woman; as well as some ‘ornaments’. He probably copied the ornaments from an illustrated book, rather than the real objects of the kind displayed in this case.*

As well as illustrated accounts of the voyages, there were costume books, which showed people in their ‘typical’ clothing; and the images appeared in other media, such as on Limoges porcelain plates and a French panoramic wallpaper. Imagine in winter sitting in your cold northern European or American home surrounded by lush green scenery, tropical fruit and scantily clad dancing women. Te Papa recently acquired a copy of this wallpaper. It’s not on view yet as it needs restoration. [See my post for more information on this wallpaper.]

These popular images weren’t always particularly accurate – they were produced for a European audience which was interested in new and “exotic” people and scenes.

It is easy to dismiss such images as perhaps ‘pretty but inaccurate’; however, I think it is important to remember that popular images such as these helped form attitudes in Europe at a time when missionary activity, trading and later emigration was happening in the Pacific. So they do form an important background to European contact with Pacific peoples, which is one of the themes of this part of the exhibition.”

This post of mine, ‘Exotic depictions…’ elaborates on the ideas here.

These prints are part of an exhibition at Te Papa called ‘Adorned’.

*   Since writing this I have read Nicholas Thomas, A Critique of the Natural Artefact: Anthropolgy, Art & Museology, Art History, Victoria University of Wellington, 2015 (a written version of the Gordon H Brown lecture Nicholas delivered in December 2014). Reproduced on page 8 is the image below (with its caption), which the Italian Bernieri would have used for his image – rearranging the artefacts to fit the composition of his page.

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