61+ 402 841 638

  • Facebook Social Icon


Artwork in Focus - William Ellis, View of Adventure Bay, Van Diemen's Land, New Holland, 1777

Updated: Aug 22, 2019

In this blog, I'd like discuss the painting I've used as the primary image on this website. It was painted in 1777 on Captain James Cook's final voyage.

On 26 January, on the first stage of his third voyage to the Pacific, Cook anchored in Adventure Bay, Van Dieman's Land (now Tasmania).

Adventure Bay had been named by Tobias Furneaux, who commanded the Adventure on Cook's second voyage (1772-75), had been the first British navigator to put in there after becoming temporarily separated from Cook during their eastward Indian Ocean passage.

Cook’s voyages aimed to extend British knowledge and imperial and economic potential. They had the combined objectives of undertaking the astronomical observation of the Transit of Venus, visiting unknown lands and people to determine whether there was potential lands for acquisition, collecting botanical and zoological specimens for scientific observation, and searching for the mythical southern continent Terra Australis Incognita (great unknown land of the South).

Although he had been aiming for New Zealand's Cook Strait, Cook anchored at Adventure Bay because HMS Resolution's fore-topmast and main top-gallant had been damaged in a gale and needed repairs. See notes below from Cook's and others' journals.

It was the only time that Cook returned to Australia after his first voyage in 1770, and as he went straight to southern New Zealand from Adventure Bay, he didn't discover that Van Diemen's Land was an island, rather than part of the Australian mainland.

This was only established after observations in the 1790s by the naval surgeon, George Bass, who suggested there was a passage between the two. It was confirmed in 1798 when he and Lieutenant Matthew Flinders managed to circumnavigate Tasmania in the sloop 'Norfolk', sailing from Sydney.

Early European art in Tasmania

European art in Tasmania began with the charts and coastal profiles of Abel Tasman's 1642 journal, and continued in the work of 18th century British explorers. On Captain Cook's second voyage (1773), Captain Tobias Furneaux drew the first Tasmanian landscape: a sketch of the south side of Adventure Bay, Bruny Island (see below).

On Cook's third voyage (1777), principle artist John Webber's responsibility was to provide drawings of the most memorable incidents, and the costumes, houses, and customs of the people they visited. In Tasmania, he made studies of Aborigines, birds and a possum.

Also part of this voyage was William Ellis, who joined the Discovery as the Surgeon's mate (there is no information about how or why he chose to do this) and later transferred to the Resolution.

William Webb/Wade Ellis was born in 1751 or 1756 in Cambridge and became a watercolourist and draughtsman.

According to Professor John Robson from the Captain Cook Society and Waikato University library (who has written extensively about Cook), "Ellis was supposedly educated at Cambridge University and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, but no evidence for these claims has been located. The quality of his bird paintings, however, shows evidence of some scientific education or training. The way he drew studies of parts of the birds would interest naturalists back in Britain. The written descriptions in Ellis’ notebooks further confirm he had a scientific education, and a working knowledge of Latin".1

David Samwell, surgeon in Discovery, described Ellis as “a genteel young fellow and of good education”.2

William Ellis, View of Adventure Bay, Van Diemen's Land, New Holland, 1777

The painting of both the Resolution and Discovery in Adventure Bay by William Ellis is important because it is one of the few surviving original works in which Cook's ships are painted in Australian waters, and which include Australian landscape. (See earlier blog about Sydney Parkinson.)

The painting shows the Resolution at anchor on the left, apparently repaired, with the slightly smaller Discovery in to the right (see detail below).

As was common for shipboard artists, it is a reasonably realistically portrayed view, showing a varied landscape on one side with trees and water on the other, without revealing the specifics of the topography or vegetation of the area. Note the limited watercolour palette available, used by naval chartmakers, which was generally limited to two greens, two browns, crimson, blue and black.

Some other paintings by Ellis are below - from the Natural History Museum in London.

Charles Clerke, Captain of HMS Discovery commended Ellis to Joseph Banks in a note "I must beg leave to recommend to your notice Mr Will. Ellis one of the Surgeon's mates who will furnish you with some drawings & accounts of the various birds which will come to your possession, he has been very useful to me in your service in that particular" .3

Unfortunately no commercial relationship between Ellis and Banks developed. However, he later agreed to an offer of 50 guineas to write an account of the third voyage which he accepted.

His work, An Authentic narrative of a voyage performed by Captain Cook and Captain Clerke in His Majesty's ships Resolution and Discovery during the years 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779 and 1780; in search of a North-West passage between the continents of Asia and America, published in 1782, sold well, even going into a second edition and being translated.

In the slideshow below you'll see the pages from the publication that relate to his time at Adventure Bay.

According to Robson, even though Ellis's publication sold well, it appears that his reputation was damaged because he had upset the authorities by publishing his narrative without permission, ahead of the official account of the voyage.4

Ellis had made friends with members of Discovery's crew, and as a result was able obtain a position on an Austrian expedition. Unfortunately, however, shortly before the Austrian expedition could depart in June, 1785, at Ostend, in Belgium, Ellis fell from the mast and died.

Although collections of Ellis’ drawings are held at the Natural History Museum, London, and the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, they have unfortunately remained amongst the least known of material from Cook’s voyages.

You'll enjoy more images by William Ellis at the Natural History Museum in London, where you can form a view about the quality of the work in his short-lived career. You may also enjoy an audio of John Robson speaking at the National Library of Australia in a talk Echoes of Cook.

Key Sources:

National History Museum, London

Royal Museums, Greenwich

The Companion to Tasmanian History

Captain Cook Society, including extracts from Cook's and other's journals.

Joan Kerr (ed), The Dictionary of Australian Artists, painters, sketchers, photographers and engravers to 1870, Oxford University press, 1992

Ellis, William, An Authentic narrative of a voyage performed by Captain Cook and Captain Clerke in His Majesty's ships Resolution and Discovery during the years 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779 and 1780; in search of a North-West passage between the continents of Asia and America, G Robinson, 1782

Joppien, Rüdiger, and Smith, Bernard. The Art of Captain Cook’s Voyages, Volume Three: The Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery 1776-1780. Yale University Press. 1988.

1. https://www.captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/william-wade-ellis-1751-1785

2. Beaglehole, J.C. The Journals of Captain James Cook. Vol. III: The Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery, 1776-1780. Hakluyt Society. 1967. Part One. Page lxxxvi.

3, ibid. Part Two. Page 1543.

4. https://www.captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/william-wade-ellis-1751-1785

#australianarthistory #WilliamEllis #WilliamWadeEllis #WilliamWebbEllis #1777 #Discovery #Resolution #CaptainJamesCook