Last month I happened on a trove of old prints, some of which I recognized as being derived from those included in the published journal of Captain James Cook's third exploratory voyage carried out between 1776 and 1780. On this voyage Cook explored the Pacific Ocean, visiting Tasmania (Van Diemans Land), New Zealand, Tonga, the Society Islands (Tahiti and Huaheine), and then discovered the Hawaiian Islands (naming them the Sandwich Islands). From there he sailed to and through the Bering Straits probing the Beaufort Sea to investigate possibilities for a Norhwest Passage, reaching at least Point Hope on the northern Alaskan coast. He returned to Hawaii where he was killed by natives. The voyage continued under the leadership of Captian Clerke (who later died of consumption), before returning to England in 1780. The artist on this voyage was John Webber, who produced drawings, sketches and watercolors of incidents, discoveries, and native peoples met by the expedition. After return of the expedition, the journals kept by Cook and Clerke, and the illustrations prepared by Webber were assembled into a 3 volume narrative (Cook & King, 1874), with an added folio volume that contained 61 copper plate engravings of the Webber's illustrations, redrawn by Webber, who then supervised their engraving by a number of artisans. Of these 61 prints, the group that I found contain 12, or roughly 20 percent of the whole. Some of these are full half sheet size appropriate for the folio volume, while others have been trimmed. All have the proper plate dimensions of the original engravings (important because later editions had smaller dimensions). All were printed on hand laid paper (wove paper was just coming into use about 1780), and nine of the twelve have the watermarks are appropriate for the original edition. The paper for the illustrations was made in France. It seems safe to conclude that my examples are, in fact from the first edition of the folio volume. It was originally printed in an edition of 2000 (which sold out within 3 days of its publication in 1884). A later printing 2000 occurred later—but I'm not sure if that included the folio prints, or if it was on the same paper.
The print offered here is Plate 50 (in the Folio Volume), indicated in the upper right corner of the plate imprint. The artist, “J(ohn) Webber” is shown below the image on the left side, and the engraver's name (Sculptor) “W. Angus. SC”in the lower right corner. This print is on 17 x 20” inch paper, untrimmed, with a plate impression of 8 ¼ x 10 3/8”. The paper is marked with the proper watermark that include a dove cote with doves, and the mark of an Avignon, France paper maker.
This illustration is titled “Canoes of Oonalashka”. It shows two styles of 18th century kayaks that include a “bidarka” (two man kayak) with men wearing flat-topped conical hunting hats, wielding single blade paddles and an array of hunting implements fastened to the deck. The kayak has a double upturned prow, and the men have waterproofed seal skins cinched around their waists to protect against shipping water. The lower kayak has a single paddler (with double-bladed paddle), and a hunting hat that features a long forward visor and is decorated with hunting trophies and amulets. The prow is not upturned. There is a spare single paddle and hunting implements fastened to the deck, while the stern has a peculiar dove-tailed shape. We know that Webber originally sketched the kayaks as separate drawings, and then combined the two as one illustration for the book. The upper image appears to be typical of kayaks used more to the west, towards the end of the Aleutian chain (towards Siberia), while the bottom one is of the sort found in the eastern Aleutians near today's Unalaska (Dutch Harbor). It is important to note that these illustrations are the very first to have been made by western observers. While Russian adventurers and explorers had prowled the Alaskan coast from the early 1700s, their records and descriptions are difficult to track down.
The condition of this print is certainly not as bad as it could be. The paper is full size, but fragile. There is some foxing in places. I have gently fastened it to a back of acid free foam board, and matted it with acid free material. But ultimately is should be conserved by de-acidifying the print, dealing with the foxing,, and have it professionally framed. But it remains a rare and wonderful thing for a kayak enthusiast, a Northwest Coast collector, or a history buff. $325..00