The Artist of the Chief Mourner

Three images of the Chief Mourner are known to have been made during the Endeavour voyage (1768-1771). [i] All were either acquired or retained by Joseph Banks and are now held in the British Library: A Tupapow in the island of Otaheite (Add. Ms 23921, folio 31a) by Sydney Parkinson; Dress of Chief Mourner (Add. Ms. 23921, folio 32) by Herman Diedrich Spöring, Joseph Bank’s secretary; and Dancing Girl & Chief Mourner (Add. Ms 15508, folio 9) by Tupaia, the Ra‘iatean arioi (a priest from the chiefly class), who travelled onboard the Endeavour from Tahiti as navigator, interpreter and diplomat. The arioi was a religious and aristocratic society throughout the Society Islands dedicated to the cult of the war god ‘Oro.  Anne Salmond gives some indication of the multiple roles they played in Tahitian society; ‘a society of orators, priests, navigators, travelling performers, warriors and famed lovers, distinguished by their tattoos and red barkcloth garments.’[ii]

Tupaia’s depiction of the Chief Mourner is the most detailed of the three. It delineates the elements of the heva costume complex: the parea, the pearl shell face mask surrounded by tropic-bird feathers, surmounted with the fa’aupo’o, a feathered headdress; the pa’utu, the cresent-shaped wooden breastplate ornamented with pearl shells and feather tassels at each end; from the pa’utu is suspended the ahu parau, the chest apron made from narrow rectangular plates of pearl shell, sewn into parallel rows; a number of tapa, or barkcloth, robes, (both raw and dyed) including Ahow-Iboo, a tapa apron covered with small coconut shell pendants, and the black feathered cloak, Ahow-roopè (the last two Tahitian terms are eighteenth-century transliterations taken from Forster’s  1776 catalogue). The Chief Mourner is also shown holding the other accoutrements of the heva dress: the tete, a pair of shell clappers or castinets, beaten to warn surrounding people of oncoming procession and the paeho, a shark’s-tooth weapon, carried to strike anyone that crosses his path. Banks, emphasizing the impossibility of adequately describing the heva tupapa’u ceremony in words, instead directs readers ‘to the annexd figure’. As his journal was unpublished it is unknown exactly to which drawing he intended to refer. However, Marilyn Savill suggests that, in ‘[w]hile it does not appear in any of the engraved plates [of the 1773 edition of Hawkesworth’s ‘Voyages’], this illustration [i.e. Tupaia’s] may have been used for clarification when Barralet created a design for Woollett to engrave, showing the Chief Mourner’s costume quite clearly.’ [iii]

A series of eight watercolour paintings in the papers of Joseph Banks in the collection of the British Library had been attributed to the unknown hand of ‘The Artist of the Chief Mourner’ after the arresting subject of one of the paintings, in the same way as anonymous masters are named in the European art tradition. Often considered to be by Banks himself, the true artist is now known to be Tupaia. The evidence only recently came to light in 1997 when Harold Carter, editing the Banks correspondence, discovered an explicit reference to a particular encounter and to Tupaia’s painting of the same scene. [iv] In the letter Banks explains that ‘Tupaia the Indian who came with me from Otaheite Learnd to draw in a way not Quite unintelligible’, an achievement he ascribes to

‘The genius for Caricature which all wild people Possess’.[v]

Parkinson and Spöring are known to have sketched the same subjects and Tupaia and Parkinson seem to have developed a spiritual kinship, so, whether by observation or instruction, it was through these relationships that Tupaia acquired the skill and knowledge of the medium. If one compares Tupaia’s watercolour with the pencil drawing by Spöring, the differences of medium aside, the primary characteristic shared by both is the frontal view which imparts a certain hieratic quality and ensures the geometry of oval and arcing shapes are at their clearest and most pronounced. The effect is possibly more notable in Tupaia’s painting, where the figure fills the full height of the right hand side of the page, whereas Spöring’s figure, smaller, neater and centrally placed, has a wide border with room below for a profile detail of the mask and turban. Other differences, like the coloured tapa skirt and the fact that the paeho staff is placed in different hands, are all suggestive of the possibility that it is drawn from life rather than a derivative image, copied and coloured in. Tupaia’s style can be fairly described as naïve and Sopring’s is close to diagrammatic, the talent of a competent draftsman rather than a trained artist. Neither have the play of shadow and light that intensifies a dramatic scene, exploited, in particular, by William Hodges’ image of the Chief Mourner, made, one can be sure, with the qualities of engraving in mind. Tupaia is not in command of perspectival space or European academic standards of naturalism; the hands and feet are by turns spiky or blocky. Yet, when one becomes aware of the intellectual curiosity and ambition that must have prompted his taking up an entirely new visual language or system of representation, the achievement becomes remarkable. The stylised, frontal depiction, seems, to me at least, to have a severity that the emotional import, say, of Kenelm Henry Digby’s 1810 watercolour could never have.

It is a relevant question to ask what grounding Tupaia might have had in indigenous systems of graphic representation, such as tattooing, dyed barkcloth and wood carving which, although based on intricate patterning, had a degree of naturalism. James Mara, an Irish sailor, who esteemed Tupaia as ‘a man of real genius, a priest of the first order and an excellent artist’, described the ‘astonishing exactness’ with which arioi tattooists traced their lines.[vi]  Close inspection of the high resolution image available from the British Library bears that out. Unfortunately it also crops the companion image of the Chief Mourner, the ‘Dancing Girl’ of the title. The heiva dances were more than entertainment, they were a religious ceremony, performed by highly trained arioi dance troupes. Salmond, observing that Tupaia’s Tahitian sketches ‘feature arioi themes, including marae arioi musicians and dancers, canoes and a chief mourner’s costume, and… employ red, brown and black, the predominant colours of bark-cloth painting’, proposes that drawing became a form of communicative exchange about Tahitian beliefs and culture. If the Tahitian images are teaching images, then the drawings made when travelling in New Zealand and along the east coast of Australia are properly ethnographic, showing a sharp interest ‘in the novel and the unknown’. Evidently Tupaia found his own significance in what he saw.[vii] Their rediscovery, or rescue from the archive, through revised reattribution is a remarkable example of indigenous agency and mutual curiosity. As Glyn Williams concludes,  in the history of early voyages and encounter:

Europeans on the Pacific discovery voyages of the Cook era exercised their superiority not only through cannon and muskets, but through a relentless describing, recording and depicting of the peoples they encountered. Tupaia seemed to have reversed that order of things. He was the observer not the observed, the painter not the painted; he was a dominant rather than a subordinate participant in the contact process.[viii]


Carter, Howard B., ‘Note on the Drawings by an Unknown Artist from the Voyage of HMS Endeavour’, in Lincoln, Margarette (ed.), Science and Exploration in the Pacific: European Voyages to the Southern Oceans in the 18th Century (Woodbridge: Boydell Press), 1998, pp.133-134.

Joppien, Rüdiger; Smith, Bernard, Art of Captain Cook’s Voyages: Volume I: The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768–1771, (London; New Haven: Yale University Press), 1985.

Newell, Jennifer, Trading Nature: Tahitians, Europeans , and Ecological Exchange  (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press), 2010.

Saville, Marilyn, Empiricism, Enlightenment and Aesthetics: Engravings from the Endeavour Voyage, 1768-1771 (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Auckland), 2011.

Smith, Keith Vincent, ‘Tupaia’s Sketchbook’, British Library eJournal, 2005:

Smith, Vanessa, ‘Banks, Tupaia, and Mai: Cross-cultural exchanges and friendship in the Pacific’, Parergon, Volume 26, Number 2, 2009, pp. 139-160.

Intimate Strangers: Friendship, Exchange and Pacific Encounters (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press), 2010.

Williams, Glyn, ‘Tupa’ia: Polynesian warrior, navigator, high priest – and artist’, in Nussbaum, Felicity (ed.), The Global Eighteenth Century (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press), 2003, pp. 38-51.

– ‘Tupaia: the remarkable story of Captain Cook’s Polynesian navigator’ , Journal of Pacific History, Vol. 46, No.3, 2011, pp.401-402

Wood, Paul, Western Art and the Wider World (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell), 2013.

[i] The three images are listed in Joppien and Smith’s descriptive catalogue as figures 1.45a, 1.48, 1.51., respectively.

[ii] Salmond, Anne, ‘Their Body is Different, Our Body is Different: European and Tahitian Navigators in the 18th Century’, History and Anthropology, Vol. 16, No. 2, June 2005, pp. 167–186.

[iii] Saville, Marilyn, Empiricism, Enlightenment and Aesthetics: Engravings from the Endeavour Voyage, 1768-1771 (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Auckland), 2011, p. 98 :

[iv] The painting is ‘A Maori bartering a crayfish with an English naval officer’. The Englishman shown is Joseph Banks himself trading Tahitian barkcloth in New Zealand.

[v] Sir Joseph Banks, Letter to Dawson Turner FRS, 1812, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Banks Collection, MS 82.

Quoted by Carter, ‘Note on the Drawings by an Unknown Artist from the Voyage of HMS Endeavour’, pp.133-134 in ed Margarette Lincoln Science and Exploration in the Pacific: European Voyages to the Southern Oceans in the 18th Century . Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 1998

[vi] Marra, John, Journal of the Resolution’s Voyage of Discovery to the Southern Hemisphere (London, 1775), p. 219. Quoted by Williams , ‘Tupa’ia: Polynesian warrior, navigator, high priest – and artist’ 2003 p47.

[vii]  Williams, Glyn, ‘Tupa’ia: Polynesian warrior, navigator, high priest – and artist’, in Nussbaum, Felicity (ed.), The Global Eighteenth Century (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press), 2003, p.49.

[viii]  Williams, Glyn, ‘Tupaia: the remarkable story of Captain Cook’s Polynesian navigator ‘, Journal of Pacific History, Vol. 46, No.3, 2011, p.401.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *