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The Cult of the
South Pacific:
from Cook to Gaugin

Report of the lecture given by
Leslie Primo BA MA
on July 28th 2010

On 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 Society.

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.

Pat Butler

Leslie 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