John Webber was twenty-four years old when he was offered a place as expedition artist with Captain James Cook on his third voyage of exploration to the Pacific. It must have seemed an amazing opportunity to an artist in the early stages of his career. And indeed that voyage became a launching pad for the direction of Webber's work for the rest of his life.
Webber was born in London in 1751, the second child of Mary and Abraham Webber. His father's name was originally Wäber - he was a sculptor from Bern, in Switzerland, and anglicised his name to Webber when he moved to England to live.
When John was six, his parents sent him to Bern to live with his father's sister. He must have shown ability in art, for at sixteen he was apprenticed to a leading, and popular, landscape artist in Switzerland, Johann Aberli. He spent three years in Aberli's studio, and then had four years in Paris, where he studied drawing and oil painting at the Académie Royale. Eventually he returned to London to work and to continue his studies at the Royal Academy there.
In 1776, Webber's work at an exhibition caught the eye of Daniel Solander, a botanist on Cook's first voyage. Solander knew that the Admiralty was still looking for a suitable expedition artist for Cook's forthcoming voyage. He met Webber to sound out his interest in the task, and then recommended him to the Admiralty for the job.
Webber's appointment was a success. He was popular with his shipmates, and his work was appreciated too. He was obviously an assiduous and enthusiastic worker. He penned, crayoned, and water-coloured his way around the world, producing a large volume of material - from lightning quick field sketches, to worked-up drawings, to complete compositions. He amply fulfilled his task of making an accurate record of landscape and 'memorable scenes', as well as doing competent portraits.
One of his first tasks on the expedition's return to England in 1780 was to complete the portrait of James Cook he had begun in 1776, which he then presented to Cook's widow. The Admiralty employed him for several years making oil paintings based on his drawings. These were the illustrations for the official account of the voyage. He then supervised the engravings made of the pictures to enable them to be printed and published.
Webber's reputation as an artist was thoroughly established by his work from this voyage. His representation of Pacific places continued to fascinate an audience with a thirst for the exotic. One outcome was his involvement in the creation of stage scenery and costumes for the 1785 London stage spectacle loosely based on Cook's voyages and on the travels of Omai from the Society Islands.
For the rest of his life he made regular tours drawing landscapes in Britain and Europe. He continued to do portraits and paint compositions based on the drawings of his Pacific travels, such as his painting of Ship Cove. He was one of the first artists to make and sell prints of his own works. He was made a full member of the Royal Academy in 1791 - a distinction in those days for someone who was regarded primarily as a landscape artist. He died from kidney disease in 1793, leaving 'a considerable fortune'.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998)