Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Masterpieces of Polynesia - John Webber - Chief of Bora Bora December 1777

In this series on Masterpieces of Old Polynesia I have continued to include European works which may seem strange, but our understanding of Polynesia tends to be crushed into a very limited period of the Contact Period and for the sixty or so years that followed. Europeans for better or worse greatly influenced our understanding of Polynesia and that understanding is something we continue to unpick, often very unfairly in the false light of Revisionists History. At its best Revisionist versions of history can revolutionise our understanding of past events, but equally can be simply a replication of the faults it seeks to correct, merely a change in the angle of bias, but then really good historians have always been very rare beasts.

However upon this subject, interestingly the first thing we need to know about this John Webber drawing is the title is wrong. For this pencil and watercolour sketch is of a man from Rurutu clearly unidentifiable from his beautiful tattoo patterns as first described by Joseph Banks in his journal, written during his visit to the island with HMS Endeavour in 1769. 'The people seemed strong lusty and well made but were rather browner than those we have left behind; they were not tattooed on their backsides, but instead of that had black marks about as broad as my hand under their armpits the sides of which were deeply indented, they had also circles of smaller ones round their arms and legs.' Webber never visited Rurutu, but met this man in the Society Islands, a fact that is in itself interesting, as it shows the continuation of inter island travel in the early fourth quarter of the 18th Century. As an artist it is clear Webber would have been captivated by these beautiful tattoos and induced the man to pose, which was probably not too difficult, as it is hard not to think that the man himself would have well understood the uniqueness of his own skin.

John Webber was born in London, educated in Bern, studied painting at Paris and was only 24 when he joined Captain Cook on his third Pacific expedition in 1776. He was an artist of modest talent, but well suited to his task as official artist, where accuracy in detail over artistic creativity took president with the Admiralty. In fact via reproduction his images of this expedition may have made his drawings slightly better known that either Parkinson or Hodges. Which however brings us to the very pertinent question , that if Webber's talents were modest, his drawing often clumsy, his landscapes without much merit and his palette muted and boring, why has he deserving to gain a place here amongst great artists? The answer is every artist is capable of a masterpiece, something rarely understood by the public, rarely acknowledged by so called experts, and certainly not understood by those collectors who continue to this day to collect very expensive signatures of great artists residing on work that they were too greedy to burn. Only dealers tend to understand this phenomena, because they see huge volumes of art. In the heyday of fifty years ago before collecting became driven by the marketing teams of major Auction Houses like Christies, Sotheby's, Bonhams and Phillips, into a mass market for Everyman, quality ruled and vast amounts of art lay together on auction room floors in cardboard boxes because it could not make it onto the walls. Then a London dealer could regularly see two thousand original art works in oil, watercolour and graphite in a week, and a small early Turner could be had for a few hundred pounds. Then working for the Auction Houses was not in vogue for upper class twits with English school boy haircuts, but young men with regional or working class accents who started at Christies and Sotheby's as porters in aprons, some or whom through passion and hard work rose to become great authorities. This was a happy world where an Art History degree was unknown, where knowledge was acquired by osmosis through contact with a hundred thousands art objects from every corner of the world, as the Great British Empire had gathered in its plunder, sometimes collected and sometimes stolen. And most importantly these objects were actually seen with the naked eye, not via an image as is so often the case today, and even better they were touched with the bare hand where now if, and it is a very big if, they are touched it is through a cotton glove.

In this World a dealer was judged by his 'Eye' which meant of course his critical sense, because without the armoury of scientific and technical aids as of today, the eye backed by a memory of thousands of mental images was the sole way of seeing. Leaving aside Webber's Chief of Bora Bora and concentrating for a moment on the study of Art History, this critical sense is almost entirely missing in the study of Polynesian Art History. The field is dominated by the modern academic with an Archaeology or Anthropology degree. It is also dominated as most people who know a little of the Academic World understand, by the writer of many academic papers. It is perfectly possible to be a world renowned expert in the field of Polynesian Art and possess no critical sense at all. The field is so starved of this critical sense, the gaps in our knowledge so vast, the possibilities for new discovery almost endless, and yet the field so relentlessly and jealously guarded by Academic Bureaucrats in Museums protecting their patches, that sometimes I confess even I grow discouraged. Especially, as I believe the History of Polynesians has so much to offer Modern Man. This goes far beyond the study of Art, or even of Culture, to questions of the very way we live our lives.

This lies at the heart of Webber's drawing; an insight into another world, which is why he like Parkinson and Hodges, and Paul Gauguin rose above their respective talents and sometimes produced the sublime. Without this Polynesian influence Charles Fredrick Goldie would have been just another good quality Académie Julian Neo-Classical portrait painter. All these artists actually experienced Polynesia, though Gauguin and Goldie probably thought they had been born too late. But Parkinson, Hodges and Webber experienced Polynesia fresh and true when Gods were Polynesian Gods and acts of love were Polynesian acts of love, not missionary preferences in both senses of the word. In this world the European artist's sensibilities would have been overwhelmed by sensations of extreme physical beauty both of the landscape and the sheer physical beauty of the people. Even poor little Sydney Parkinson; a Quaker circumcised to the temptations of the flesh with Tahitian beauties. Quite what Polynesian women thought of these white strangers is not recorded. But firstly Polynesian women were scrupulously clean bathing daily in fresh water and wearing scented grasses between their legs. European writings and paintings are full of references to Polynesian women bathing singularly or in groups. Even today Polynesian women will wear a flower tucked into the hair above the ear, this is not there as some sort of tourist inspired affectation but placed there and worn with a naturalness that no European woman could hope to emulate.The effect on European men was plainly powerfully erotic and Polynesian women would have encouraged their European lovers to adopt their custom for cleanliness through example and through necessity as European men confined to month after month to the cramped unhygenic confines of Cook's Witby Cats would have stunk like polecats. Just before first sighting Tahiti, Joseph Banks recorded in his journal of dosing himself with lemon juice against the first symptoms of scurvy. He recorded the swelling of his gums but fails to own up to the foul breath that accompanies this symptom. He of course intelligently supplied himself with this cure, the rest of the crew had to rely on Cook supplying sauerkraut to their diet.

The erotic fantasies of European men for Polynesian women are so well recorded as to be self evident, but the opinions of Polynesian women on the sexual performance of European men go very largely unwritten, except in an admission of Banks that he slept with Purea and she did not repeat the experiment. But then Terence Barrow who can always supply an enlightened insight into Polynesian Culture said that Polynesians should be thought of as Asians, and if we look at the wholly different attitudes to sex of Asian and European women and we place Polynesian women within this context we can understand why Europeans thought Tahiti and the islands of the Pacific a paradise.

Of Webber's drawing there is another point I wish to make which is of the tattoos themselves. These are probably very accurate examples of late Rurutu tattoo and they may even reflect the body designs of the greater Austral Island area. We know from illustrations of John Rutherford's tattoos from forty years later he certainly did not have tattoos of this type though he did have other obviously Austral Island Tattoos. So Webber's drawing is important in the context of the current renaissance of Polynesian tattoo, though no one seems to have tried so far to duplicate these tattoos something it would be nice to think this article might inspire.

Webber is not it should be thought a forgotten figure of Pacific exploration, indeed amongst writers and historians of Polynesia he is held in high regard for the accuracy of the detail in his drawings, higher even that Sydney Parkinson. But if he was remembered for just one image this one of the misnamed Chief of Bora Bora would serve his memory very well indeed.


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