Finding a painting in a landscape: locating the site of ‘Waterfall in Dusky Bay with Maori canoe’

Finding a painting in a landscape: locating the site of ‘Waterfall in Dusky Bay with Maori canoe’

In April 2019, Te Papa acquired a rare, early oil painting by William Hodges, artist on Captain Cook’s second voyage, titled Waterfall in Dusky Bay with Maori Canoe. Here, Te Papa tour host Bill Whelen reflects upon his journeys into Dusky Sound, and finding the exact location of Te Papa’s newly acquired painting.

In the footsteps of Cook and his crew

In 1998, I travelled to Fiordland with a group of 16 mountaineers to climb Mount Sparrman, a mountain named after one of the members of the crew onboard the Resolution during Captain Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific from 1772-75. The Resolution anchored at Pickersgill Harbour in Tamatea (Dusky Sound) on 26 March 1773, after 115 days at sea. Tamatea offered a safe harbour, rich with resources, where Cook and his crew could replenish provisions, make repairs, collect specimens, and brew beer as well as Mānuka tea. They stayed there for five weeks, enabling William Wales, the astronomer, to establish the latitude and longitude of this isolated part of Aotearoa New Zealand, and for members of the crew to explore the local environs.

Anders Sparrman, from whom Mount Sparrman got its name, was a young Swedish naturalist. He led the climb and recorded the ascent in his journal. He described climbing past a waterfall in Cascade Cove, a site where William Hodges, the artist on board the Resolution, made many drawings and sketches. I took colour photocopies of Hodges’ paintings with me to help identify the route they had taken. I was also curious to see where Hodges must have been when he did the initial sketch that later inspired the painting A Maori before a waterfall in Dusky Bay.

This painting shows a Māori man standing on a rocky outcrop in front of a cascading waterfall
William Hodges, A Maori before a waterfall in Dusky Bay, about 1775, oil on board. Southland Museum and Art Gallery Niho o te Taniwha

A composite picture

While this painting shows the waterfall described by Sparrman, and includes the summit of the mountain they climbed, it is not an accurate representation of the landscape. Instead it is a composite image bringing together a number of observations made by Hodges while they were in the area. This includes the visit of Hodges and other crew members to the spectacular waterfall at Cascade Cove, as well as the meeting of Cook and his crew with a Māori family – the first meaningful contact between Europeans and southern Māori.

I also had with me a photocopy of Waterfall in Dusky Bay with a Maori canoe, the painting recently acquired by Te Papa. This painting did not appear to look like the waterfall in Cascade Cove, and yet Bernard Smith, one of the authors of The Art of Cook’s Voyages, had written in 1992 that this painting “may possibly” be the painting made after the sketches Hodges did in Cascade Cove.[i]

A painting by William Hodges showing a Māori man and women in a double-hulled waka. They are in a stunning fiord location with mountains rising into the distance and a waterfall cascading down the hill on the right hand side.
Te Papa’s recently acquired painting: William Hodges, Waterfall in Dusky Bay with Maori canoe, 1776, oil on board. Purchased 2019 with partial funding by the Lottery Grants Board from the Tuia – Encounters 250 fund. Te Papa (2019-0003-1)

Sailing into a painting

We completed our climb of Mount Sparrman 225 years to the day after the first ascent and the next day we were taken to many of the historical sites in Tamatea on a charter vessel. We then travelled to the head of the sound where some of us planned to walk the Dusky Track, an arduous five-day tramp back to Manapouri. Those who didn’t want to do the walk were to be picked up by floatplane that afternoon to fly back to Manapouri.

As we approached a narrow part of the Sound called Nine Fathoms Passage, 26 kilometres from Pickersgill Harbour where the Resolution had been anchored, Hodges’ painting Waterfall in Dusky Bay with Maori canoe unexpectedly came into view. By the time I found my camera we had passed the waterfall and we were inside Hodges’ painting. Our captain was reluctant to turn around to get a photo as we had planned to rendezvous with the floatplane at a certain time and place.

Photograph showing mountains to the right with the waterfall visible in Hodges' painting made in Nine Fathoms Passage
‘Inside’ William Hodges’ painting at Nine Fathoms Passage in Tamatea (Dusky Sound), 1993. Photo by Bill Whelen

Locating Hodges’ painting

I returned to Nine Fathoms Passage in Tamatea in December 1999 with some experts, including: Bernard Smith, (co-author with Rüdiger Joppien of The Art of Captain Cooks Voyages, 1988, and Imagining the Pacific, 1992); Jenny Harper (soon to become Director of the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū); Wayne Marriot (at the time Director of the Southland Museum & Art Gallery and negotiating the purchase of William Hodges’ A Maori before a waterfall in Dusky Bay); and John Robson (author of Captain Cook’s World and The Captain Cook Encyclopaedia).

People on a boat in Tamatea, Dusky Sound, looking at the site of Hodges' painting
On the MV Breaksea Girl, 3 December 1999. From the left, Wayne Marriot, John Robson, and Bernard Smith viewing the site of Hodges’ painting. On the right is Bernard’s son holding a copy of the painting. Photo by Bill Whelen

Everyone agreed that this was where Hodges had sketched the scene. Published accounts confirm that Hodges visited Nine Fathoms Passage on the 19 April 1773. Cook wrote: … ‘[we] set out with two boats to examine the head of the bay; myself in one, accompanied by Mr. Forster and Mr. Hodges; and Lieutenant Cooper in the other. We proceeded up the South side; and without meeting with any thing remarkable, got to the head of the bay by sun-set’.[ii]

Photograph of nine fathoms passage
Nine Fathoms Passage in 1999, 226 years after Hodges was in the area. Photo by Bill Whelen

In his journal Cook mentioned that he was “accompanied by the two Mr Forsters”, which means that Johann Reinhold Forster (the naturalist on board) and his son Georg were also in the group. Georg Forster provided more details, painting a picture with words of the waterfall that features in Hodges’ painting:

[We] set out in two boats, with the captain and several officers, to examine a long inlet which ran east-ward, in sight of our cove… The interior ranges of mountains called the Southern Alps, appeared very distinctly, of a great height, and covered with snow on their summits. We passed by a number of shady islands, which contained little coves and river lets; and on one of the projecting points, opposite the last island, we saw a fine cascade falling into the water, over steep rock, clothed with thick bushes and trees. The water was perfectly calm, polished, and transparent; the landscape was distinctly reflected in it, and the various romantic shapes of the steep mountains, contrasted in different masses of light and shade, had an admirable effect. About noon we put into a small cove, where we caught some fish, and shot a few birds.[iii]

The boats used for this exploration would have been small rowing boats, like those pictured in the engraving below. These were clinker built vessels with at least two seats for four rowers, guided by a person at the rear using a rudder. Europeans face backwards when rowing, so Hodges must have been keeping an eye out for scenes to sketch while they were travelling along the sound.

Shows the 'Resolution' in Antarctic waters, with the crew in the small rowing boats that would have been used to explore Tamatea, Dusky Sound
Benjamin Pouncy after William Hodges, The ice islands, seen the 9th of Janry 1773, engraving, plate XXX from volume 1 of James Cook’s A Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World, 1777. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. British Museum (1855,0414.285)

A sublime picture

The painting Hodges created back in England from sketches made in Tamatea was, as Bernard Smith has written:

…a picturesque composition: the abrupt and broken height of the cliff at right, from which water falls into a pool of darkness; the reflection in still water; the mountains clothed in mist; the mystery of infinite distances; the loneliness of the Maori in their canoes amid a waste of waters. … Such a painting could fittingly illustrate well-known passages in Wordsworth’s Prelude or Shelley’s Alastor. [The painting has] the same mood of isolation and loneliness amid a natural world, sublime and terrifying, that one occasionally finds in the early works of Turner…[iv]

Close observations

Hodges may have indulged in romantic effect in his artworks, and Te Papa’s painting is, like A Maori before a waterfall in Dusky Bay, a composite image – no Māori were seen at Nine Fathoms Passage. But the double-hulled waka portrayed in the right foreground of the painting fits descriptions of such canoes made by both William Wales and Georg Forster, suggesting that Hodges keenly observed the people and artefacts encountered during their time in Tamatea.

detail of Te Papa's Hodges painting showing the distinctive double-hulled waka, waka unua.
William Hodges, Waterfall in Dusky Bay with Maori canoe (detail), 1776, oil on board. Purchased 2019 with partial funding by the Lottery Grants Board from the Tuia – Encounters 250 fund. Te Papa (2019-0003-1)

This is quite special, as the Hodges’ painting provides the earliest visual depiction of a waka unua (double-hulled waka). Wales described the waka unua as follows:

The canoe was composed of two small ones, hollowed out of a tree each, and fastened to one another about a foot asunder by cross pieces, which were lashed to both with bandages made from the hemp Plant, as we called it. The Stems and Stern-Posts rose much higher than the body of the Canoe and the head was attempted to be carved like the upper parts of a man and limpet shells were put for the Eyes. … [One canoe] is considerably larger than the other, I think that [the one] on the starboard side is about ¼th part longer than the larboard one: Those which I have seen being 18 feet & 14ft respectively. They are fixed so as to approach nearer to each other at the head than the Stern, which is an useful precaution. The Cross pieces are made fast to the two Canoes with lashings made of the hemp Plant, and they have wash boards above the solid part of the boats fastened in the same manner, so well, that very little water can come in between them.[v]

Where was Hodges standing?

Having confirmed the site of the painting, I tried to imagine where Hodges was standing when he made his sketches of the passage and the waterfall. An earlier researcher, Barry Rolett suggests that Waterfall in Dusky Bay with Maori canoe ‘illustrates a scene in Nine Fathoms Passage [and that it was] a composite view created from two separate vantage points, both of which were very likely on rock outcrops in the fjord channel’.[vi]

However, after visiting Nine Fathoms Passage on two occasions, I question Rolett’s theory that Hodges was standing on rock outcrops to sketch the scene. Artists travelling with Cook often sketched from a moving vessel, as Hodges had done from the deck of the Resolution as they entered and departed from Tamatea. Given the crew had already rowed 26 kilometres that morning, I like to imagine that they stopped rowing for a few minutes and had a welcome rest so that Hodges could quickly make a sketch as the boat drifted quietly into the painting.

The two paintings by William Hodges featuring in this blog are on show at Te Papa in the exhibition Tamatea: He Tūtakinga Tuku Iho / Legacies of Encounter.

  • [i] Bernard Smith, Imagining the Pacific in the wake of the Cook voyages, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1992, pp. 120-121
  • [ii] James Cook, A Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World, London, 1777, p. 82.
  • [iii] Georg Forster, A Voyage Round the World, (1777), p 164
  • [iv] Rüdiger Joppien and Bernard Smith, The Art of Captain Cooks Voyages, (1985-88), vol 2, The Voyage of the Resolution and Adventure, 1772-1775, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, p. 24.
  • [v] William Wales, cited in J. C. Beaglehole, The Journals of Captain Cook, vol. II, pp. 779-781.
  • [vi] Barry Rolett, ‘Island Landscapes by William Hodges: Reconstructing Painting Practices Through Photographic Fieldwork’, Pacific Studies, Vol. 16, No. 3, September 1993. Rolett, an anthropologist from Hawai’i, had identified Nine Fathoms Passage as the site of Hodges’ painting in 1980 in the course of his studies to determine the location of the vantage points where William Hodges had made the initial drawings for his paintings

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