Helen Snell with artwork prototype and selected volumes from the Cottonian Collection for NeogeographiesThis year marks 250 years since Captain James Cook set sail from Plymouth aboard HMS Endeavour. Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives holds first editions of the memoirs of Cook’s Voyages in our Designated collection, the Cottonian Collection.

Artist Helen Snell has recently secured Arts Council England funding for a Cook 250-inspired project called ‘Neogeographies’ in partnership with the Captain Cook Museum, Whitby and the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, Bovey Tracey. We are supporting her with her research and documentation.

Helen came to us with a request to see the Cook volumes and what followed has bloomed into the kind of collaboration curators often dream about! This is the first of four blogs posts that will trace the conversations between Helen and our curatorial team, allowing a glimpse into the artist’s practice and her engagement with our collections. This post follows a dialogue about the visual legacy of Cook’s voyages between Helen and Art Curator, Terah Walkup.

Helen Snell: Terah had prepared a table full of treasures from the Cottonian Collection. Top of my list were a selection of exquisite volumes detailing ‘The Voyages of Captain James Cook’.

Terah Walkup: Cook engaged artists to come along on his voyages to make drawings that would later be made into prints of the people, customs and landscapes seen along the way. These images and the words of Cooks memoirs would be the first, and often, only glimpse into these new encounters for well-to-do audiences in Britain and Europe. Not everyone had access to these expensive volumes so even seeing these books would be limited to those that could afford them. They were meant to be points of knowledge but it’s important to remember they weren’t strictly documentary.

Helen: The scenes depicted by Cook’s official artists, Parkinson, Webber and Hodges are seemingly idyllic. The skill of the engravers to render their imagery in line is mesmerising, but all the images are laden with the troubling subtexts relating to the colonisation that would follow. In preparation for my visit I had laser cut some prototype viewing devices as a way of interrogating the material and generating new perspectives.

The Second Voyage of Captain James Cook, 1777, Cottonian Collection, CB527 for Neogeographies

William Hodge’s engraving ‘View on the Island of Pines’ is a case in point. It’s hard to view this as an objective recording of the island. To my 21st century eyes it reads as a European fantasy.

Melanesian people lived on the island for over 2,000 years before it was first visited by Europeans. Cook saw the island on his second voyage to New Zealand in 1774. He renamed it after seeing the tall native pines (Araucaria columnaris). He never disembarked but as smoke was seen he assumed it was inhabited. In the 1840’s Protestant and Catholic missionaries arrived, along with merchants seeking sandalwood. The French took possession of the island in 1853. In 1872 the island became a French penal colony, home to 3,000 political deportees.

I used the magnifying lens to distort and target the classical perfection of this alien figure in the landscape. Is he supposed to be a native of the Island of Pines, Adam in the Garden of Eden or a figure of Apollo?

Neogeographies research image

Terah: Helen and I had an interesting discussion about this figure. To me, it looks more like a figure from the classical age than a figure he’d observed or attempt to present something accurate.

Artists of the 18th century often looked to idealised representations of bodies from the past to present their own views of people and places.

Print of a classical statue from Statuae antiquae deorum et virorum illustrium [Illustrated Catalogue of Ancient Statues in the Museum of Florence], Antonio Francesco Gori, 1734, Cottonian Collection, CB161 for NeogeographiesWhat I love about Helen’s viewfinder is that it makes us rethink how we engage with books and makes us take a second look at the images. New interpretations and new meanings can be teased out when you use a new lens to look at them.

Helen: I also started to experiment with some prototype page markers – all acid free of course!

Terah: Helen surprised us all when she brought in these thin laser cut prototypes that combine the form of Polynesian combs with imagery drawn from Britain’s colonial past. These combs, at once reference an accessory that is decorative and ceremonial, and, because of their pliability, can function as bookmarks. We spent some time using Helen’s prototypes to re-engage with prints in Captain Cook’s voyages. We’re all looking forward to seeing how these artworks develop and to Helen’s next visit.

Helen Snell research visit #1 for Neogeographies

You can follow Helen Snell’s ‘Neogeographies’ project on Instagram here.