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The George Lucas of 230 years ago

Mark Stocker on Philippe de Loutherbourg and three dramatic depictions of Māori

<P data-associrn="1438092"></P> <P><STRONG>Special effects</STRONG></P> <P>The Anglo-French artist Philippe de Loutherbourg (1740&#8211;1812) was a master of special effects in light and sound. With a sheet of thin copper shaken by its corner he caused a lady attending one of his panoramas to shriek ‘It lightens!’<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP> A mass exodus from the theatre ensued. The Force was with him: his virtual thunderstorm was scarily realistic, and led to indignant accusations &#8211; which Loutherbourg surely enjoyed &#8211; of playing God. At one point he did just that, temporarily forsaking his immensely successful and lucrative career in landscape painting and set design to offer faith healing through ‘heavenly and divine Influx’.<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP></P> <P data-associrn="1414777"></P> <P>Te Papa has recently acquired three watercolours attributed to the ‘most amazing’ Loutherbourg.<SUP><FONT size=2>3 </FONT></SUP>They are small in scale and were never intended to be major works of art as such. However, their art historical, theatrical, and cultural interest, not least to Aotearoa New Zealand, is considerable. They relate to one of Loutherbourg’s greatest box-office hits, the pantomime <EM>Omai, or, A Trip Round the World</EM> (1785), staged at the Covent Garden Theatre in London.</P> <P><STRONG>Setting the scene</STRONG></P> <P>As a teenager, Loutherbourg had studied mathematics, theology, and languages at the University of Strasbourg, but it was as a painter that he first made his mark in the early 1760s. Leading Parisian critic and public intellectual Denis Diderot admired Loutherbourg’s ability to convey space and atmosphere in his Salon landscapes and seascapes, such as <EM>The Shipwreck</EM> (1769), and this had obvious theatrical implications.</P> <P data-associrn="1438093"></P> <P>Following an 18th century ‘OE’ in his late twenties, which took him to Germany, Switzerland and Italy, Loutherbourg rapidly realised the opportunities that the lively, competitive London theatrical scene offered to someone like himself, versed in staging and lighting effects. He could shed some of the light of the Paris Opera, which he had studied at first hand, on to the London stage. His big break came when David Garrick, the greatest actor, theatre manager and producer of the era (and a major art collector too), entrusted Loutherbourg to head the scenic department at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Loutherbourg’s annual salary of £300 was soon raised to a stellar £500 (add three figures to get today’s equivalent). Canny, sassy, sensationalist, socially ambitious, and enjoying an eighteenth-century consumerist lifestyle, he constantly risked accusations of vulgarity from the snobbish art world &#8211; what’s new? But precisely because of this Loutherbourg speaks to today’s market (and cosmic) forces in a way that his high-minded contemporary portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds does not.</P> <P>For all their reservations about whether he was a really serious artist, Loutherbourg’s contemporaries admired his ‘unification of all scenic elements . . . his skill in creating lighting effects of considerable sophistication; and . . . his ability to create scenes of great topographical power and association’.<SUP><FONT size=2>4 </FONT></SUP>To this he brought an easel painter’s sensibilities and prestige, so he could never be dismissed as a mere technician or craftsman.</P> <P>Loutherbourg’s designs crossed the genres of comedy, tragedy, and pantomime with ease and panache. Unfortunately only a handful of his set models survive, as this is an essentially ephemeral art form. All of them, including two for <EM>Omai</EM> (depicting Kensington Gardens and a Kamchatka snow hut), are in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. In addition, there are 17 surviving costume designs for the same production (including <EM>A man of New Zealand</EM>) at the National Library of Australia. These are now joined in the world’s public collections by the three Te Papa acquisitions, which have long been known to scholars of theatrical and voyager art alike.</P> <P data-associrn="1438096"></P> <P><STRONG><EM>Omai, or, A Trip Round the World</EM></STRONG></P> <P>Like most pantomimes, the plot of <EM>Omai</EM> is rather silly and far too intricate to be properly summarised here. The costume designs relate to the happy climactic moment when, after his trials and tribulations, the hero of the title is installed on the throne of Otaheite (present-day Tahiti) with Londina, daughter of Britannia, as his Queen. They are honoured by a procession of representatives from the Pacific, headed by six men from Otaheite, immediately followed by indigenous New Zealanders and others from the Marquesas, Friendly and Sandwich islands to Kamchatka in the Russian northeast and Nootka Sound (in today’s British Columbia) who have travelled vast distances to be there.The playbill highlights the procession, which purported to ‘exactly’ represent the ‘Dresses, Weapons and Manners, of the Inhabitants’ of these diverse localities. Although later scholars have inevitably found fault with their authenticity, this attempt at exactitude underlines the genuinely educative aspects of this pantomime, which was consistent with the wider culture of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Philosopher Immanuel Kant’s phrase ‘dare to know’ aptly summarises the questing spirit of the age.</P> <P>The real-life Omai (or properly Mai) was the first Polynesian to visit England (1774&#8211;76), where he had impressed court, aristocracy, and celebrities alike for personifying one of the constructs of the Age of Enlightenment, that of the ‘noble savage’. Omai was far more of the former than the latter, and was admired as a natural aristocrat, who exposed the corrupt and decadent values of the ‘Old World’ of Europe. Reynolds painted his famous portrait <EM>Omai</EM> (1774) where the model assumes a pose derived from the ancient sculpture the <EM>Apollo Belvedere</EM>, transplanted to an imaginary ‘South Seas’ setting. He thus made a highly suitable hero for the pantomime. Marrying him off to Londina was piquant in terms of the plot but at a deeper level this already reflected Britannia’s colonising aspirations. </P> <P data-associrn="1438094"></P> <P><STRONG>Mature adults and tender children</STRONG></P> <P>The historical backdrop to <EM>Omai</EM> was in fact Captain James Cook’s third and fatal voyage of discovery to the Pacific (1776&#8211;80) and its many ports of call. Indeed, London’s <EM>The Times</EM> called the pantomime ‘a beautiful illustration of Cook’s Voyages &#8211; an illustration of importance to the mature mind of an adult and delightful to the tender capacity of an infant’. The newspaper admired the ‘exact representations . . . of buildings, marine vessels, arms, manufactures, sacrifices and dresses’ of Pacific peoples.<SUP><FONT size=2>5</FONT></SUP></P> <P></P> <P>The official account of the voyage was published by the Board of Admiralty in London (1784), and went through numerous editions, reprints, serialisations, and translations. Public interest in the Pacific as well as in Cook’s sensational ‘martyrdom’ in Hawaii was immense. <EM>Omai</EM> capitalised on this, with a giant canvas descending to the stage depicting Cook’s apotheosis &#8211; his elevation to divine status &#8211; which even in its small surviving form as an engraving looks wonderfully over the top. King George III, who attended several times, was evidently moved to tears by this scene. <EM>Omai</EM> was first performed in December 1785, and its costume watercolours almost certainly date from earlier that year.</P> <P data-associrn="1130277"></P> <P><STRONG>Loutherbourg or Webber? A close collaboration</STRONG></P> <P>Earlier in this article I stated that the watercolours have been ‘attributed’ to Loutherbourg. The alternative candidate as their artist was his friend John Webber (1751&#8211;93), who was the official artist on the voyage and had witnessed Cook’s tragic end. Of all Cook’s artists, Webber provides the most comprehensive and informative documentation of indigenous landscapes and peoples. His lyrical portrait painting <EM>Poedua [Poetua], daughter of Oreo, chief of Ulaietea, one of the Society Isles</EM> (1785) is a major work in Te Papa’s collection. While Loutherbourg may enjoy a greater European profile, in Aotearoa New Zealand the reverse applies due to Webber’s unique contact with this country.</P> <P data-associrn="1438095"></P> <P>In this context, art historians have long questioned the authorship of all 20 costume watercolours, noting their ‘lighter execution’ than that normally encountered in documented Loutherbourgs. Olivier Lefeuvre, in his recent, immensely impressive monograph <EM>Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg</EM> (2012), claims that stylistically most of them are ‘clearly not’ by him, and nor are the inscriptions such as ‘A Woman New Zealand middle size’ in his hand.<SUP><FONT size=2>6 </FONT></SUP>Instead, Lefeuvre confidently reattributes them to Webber on stylistic grounds, although to complicate matters still further, two of the drawings are demonstrably based on earlier works by William Hodges, the leading artist of Cook’s second voyage (1772&#8211;75). </P> <P></P> <P>We know that Loutherbourg and Webber worked closely together on the designs for the costumes and sets of <EM>Omai</EM>. Surviving theatre accounts reveal that Webber was paid £123 for his share of the work, while Loutherbourg netted a tidy £620. The playbill credits ‘The Pantomine, and the Whole of the Scenery, Machinery, Dresses, &amp;c. Designed and Invented by Mr. Loutherbourg, and executed under his Superintendance and Direction by Messrs. RICHARDS, CARVER, and HODGINGS, Mr CATTON, Jun. Mr. TURNER, and a CELEBRATED ARTIST.’ That unnamed ‘celebrated artist’ was almost certainly Webber himself, who furnished Loutherbourg with the original voyage drawings that were then used as an essential basis for the production.</P> <P data-associrn="1414767"></P> <P data-associrn="1414778"></P> <P>The two men probably needed each other: Webber to provide authenticity and Loutherbourg to provide sensationalism on stage. The most powerful of the three watercolours, <EM>A chief of New Zealand</EM>, adopts an elegantly classical stance. He is reasonably historically plausible, even if the tattooing on his arms appears more Tahitian than M&#257;ori. Incongruous, however, is the banana palm frond that he holds. Art historian Rüdiger Joppien regards such evidence as an argument in support of Loutherbourg as the artist: ‘it seems unreasonable for Webber to have deviated from his own drawings which he knew were ethnographically the more correct ones’.<SUP><FONT size=2>7 </FONT></SUP>Maybe so, but I can also imagine Loutherbourg saying, ‘I think that chief needs to be holding a banana frond, Mr Webber!’ and perhaps even overruling any possible objections. </P> <P></P> <P>This dramatised (and simplified) version of art history should not, however, minimise Loutherbourg’s collecting interest in the newly ‘opened’ Pacific cultures. He made numerous purchases of artefacts from Cook’s voyages and elsewhere, perhaps realising their potential as theatrical props. Loutherbourg’s estate sale in 1812 included a ‘Bone Pattopattoo’ from New Zealand, which might well have been the patu paraoa tucked in the belt of <EM>A chief warrior, New Zealand</EM>.</P> <P><STRONG>M&#257;ori take the stage</STRONG></P> <P>Whoever their artist really was, the historical and cultural importance of these watercolours should not be underestimated. They record the costumes and body art of the first ever representations of M&#257;ori on the western stage, offering fascinating insights into how Europeans envisaged the indigenous peoples of New Zealand, and the belief that such a depiction was true to life. Moreover, according to Joppien, ‘apparently they are the earliest original costume designs which have survived from the eighteenth-century English stage’.<SUP><FONT size=2>8 </FONT></SUP>That they are from the classic era of David Garrick and stellar tragedienne Sarah Siddons only underlines their uniqueness. Their survival was probably assisted by their special connections with Captain Cook, whereas Loutherbourg’s other costume designs have disappeared. Lastly, they help convey to us what a wondrous spectacle <EM>Omai, or, A Trip Round the World</EM> must have been. It seems highly appropriate that they have indeed tripped round the world (and the Empire has struck back!) to reach Te Papa, where they will be enjoyed by the public once more. </P> <P></P> <P><STRONG><FONT size=2>Endnotes</FONT></STRONG></P> <OL> <LI><FONT size=2>John Gage, ‘Loutherbourg: Mystagogue of the sublime’, <EM>History Today</EM>, vol. 13, 1963, p. 336.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Christopher Baugh, ‘Loutherbourg, Philippe Jacques [Philip James] de (1740-1812)’, <EM>Oxford Dictionary of National Biography</EM>, <A href=""></A>, (accessed 1 May 2014).</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Gage, p. 332.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Baugh, ‘Loutherbourg’.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Quoted in Iain McCalman, ‘Spectacles of knowledge: <EM>OMAI</EM> as ethnographic travelogue’, in Michelle Hetherington, <EM>Cook &amp; Omai: The cult of the South Seas</EM>, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2001, p. 11.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Olivier Lefeuvre, <EM>Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg</EM>, Arthena, Paris, 2012, p. 76.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Rüdiger Joppien, ‘Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg’s pantomime “Omai, or a Trip round the World” and the artists of Captain Cook’s voyages’, <EM>The British Museum Yearbook 3</EM>, British Museum, London, 1979, p. 92.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Joppien, p. 90.</FONT></LI></OL>
Thomas Gainsborough, &lt;EM&gt;Portrait of Philippe de Loutherbourg&lt;/EM&gt;, 1778 or before. By permission of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Philippe de Loutherbourg, 1778 or before. By permission of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery.


Philip James de Loutherbourg, and John Webber, A chief of New Zealand, 1785, watercolour,
Purchased 2014.
Full object info is available on

Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, &lt;EM&gt;Shipwreck in a Great Storm&lt;/EM&gt;, 1769, Chateau-Musee Dieppe. Image Wikipedia Commons.

Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, Shipwreck in a Great Storm, 1769, Chateau-Musee Dieppe. Image Wikipedia Commons.


Philip James de Loutherbourg, and John Webber, A chief warrior, New Zealand, circa 1785, watercolour,
Purchased 2014.
Full object info is available on


John Webber, Poedua [Poetua], daughter of Oreo, chief of Ulaietea, one of the Society Isles, 1785, oil on canvas,
Purchased 2010.
Full object info is available on

Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, &lt;EM&gt;The Apotheosis of Captain Cook&lt;/EM&gt;, 1794, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook, 1794, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

William Hodges, Man of New Zealand, from James Cook, &lt;EM&gt;A Voyage Towards the South Pole&lt;/EM&gt;, 1777

William Hodges, Man of New Zealand, from James Cook, A Voyage Towards the South Pole, 1777

Playbill for &lt;EM&gt;Omai or A trip round the world&lt;/EM&gt;, National Library of Australia, 1785-6

Playbill for Omai or A trip round the world, National Library of Australia, 1785-6