Cranleigh Arts Centre
West Surrey Area
Museums & Art Galleries
Cult of the
from Cook to Gaugin
of the lecture given by
Leslie Primo BA MA
on July 28th
a very warm and humid day in Cranleigh, it was not difficult for the senses to
be transported to the exotic shores of Tahiti for a fascinating and often
amusing description of an island that still today conjures up images of dusky
maidens, straw huts and swaying palms.
John Dryden the Poet Laureate in the 17th century wrote of the idea of
"A Noble Savage". The painting of the death of Wolfe by Benjamin West
portrays such a man kneeling at the feet of the dying commander. The thought
of an earthly Paradise waiting to be discovered captured the imagination of
In 1767 Samuel Wallace discovered Tahiti. He then laid claim and
renamed it King George Island. Paintings and etchings of the period show the
long war boats used by the natives to defend themselves against tribes from
other islands. A year later the French arrived to claim the land and changed the
name yet again.
James Cook had served as a cartographer on Bligh's
ship, The Bounty. In 1778 he was sponsored by The Royal Society to make the
voyage to Tahiti. Many of his crew had already made the journey and knew some of
the landmarks. The objective was to chart the movement of the solar system and
secretly venture to the land of Australia.
On board was Joseph Banks the botanist. He was eager to discover the
untold delights of this exotic paradise. They were charged with observing The
Transit of Venus, the time when Venus passes in front of the Sun. They had one
chance to chart this phenomenon as it occurs in cycles of 120 and then 8 years.
This would be a wonderful aid for future navigation.
Cook landed on 15th April, building a small fort on the spot named
Point Venus. The astronomical quadrants and equipment were put into place. The
night before the observation the instruments were stolen. Fortunately they were
found and reconstructed just in time.
Cook and Banks had very different views of the natives. Cook thought
they were deceitful liars and thieves. Banks however had learned their language
and become intimate with many of the ladies. When Cook was to make a second
voyage, Banks was very keen to return. Sadly for him, Cook refused.
Ten years of war had changed Tahiti and on Cook's return he and his
men discovered commerce was now part of the lifestyle. The natives had realised
that metal was a valuable commodity. As they did not have currency how could
they trade? Prostitution was the commerce, paid for, by the sailors, in nails,
taken from the ship. A ripple of laughter rang out at the amusing apocryphal
tale of the vessel leaving for home and falling apart in the bay.
The exotic image of this far-flung paradise remained in the minds of
Europeans well into the 19th century .At the 1889 Paris World Fair there were
still depictions of scantily clad dancers, luscious green mountains, quiet
groves, a paradise just waiting to be enjoyed.
In July 1891 Gaugin arrived to discover there were no longer the
traditional dwellings and that Christian missionaries had convinced the ladies
to cover their bodies in European style clothes. He had great difficulty is
persuading any of them to remove these garments for his paintings. His mistress
of Anglo Tahitian descent was not happy when he decided to move further into the
interior in the hope of finding some of the unspoilt life of the island, so they
went their separate way. His paintings throbbed with colour, conveying the heat
and perfume of this tropical life. However, "civilised" it now was!
For a brief period he returned to France to sell his work and then
returned to an island in the Marquesas . Here he edited the local paper and
fathered three children. At the age of 54 he died never having found his
mythical paradise. Are there still some direct descendants of Gaugin alive
today? As we ventured out into the afternoon sunshine we could only wonder.
Primo is a graduate with two degrees in Art History from Birkbeck, University
College, London, specialising in early Medieval and Renaissance studies. He has
worked at the National Gallery in London for 10 years, and has taught a variety
of art history courses at Reading University. Leslie currently lectures at the
National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and teaches a variety of art
history courses at the City Literary in London. He has presented a series of
talks at the National Maritime Museum and the Courtauld Institute