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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Joseph Banks and George Stubbs's kangaroo

I was intrigued to see a BBC report that the National Maritime Museum claims that Canberra's Stubbs's paintings don't have enough Australian interest for the Aussies to keep them.  And the man behind it? No less than Sir David Attenborough, who should know his history better.

Accordingly, money is being raised, and an import licence has been applied for, and legal efforts made to get around Canberra's export ban.

How ridiculous.  It is an intrinsic Australian story, deeply connected to the first charting of the eastern coast by James Cook in the Endeavour.  And it is an amusing story, too.

‘Land animals are scarce’, declared Captain Cook in his description of the coast of Australia.  Those in ‘the greatest plenty’ were ‘the Kangooroo, or Kanguru so call’d by the Natives; we saw a great many of them about Endeavour River, but kill’d only Three which we found very good eating’.  No one, apparently, thought of taking a live kangaroo to England — or even carrying one or two for eating along the way — but Joseph Banks did carry back two skins.  One of these was inflated (probably over a rubber lining) to look as lifelike as possible, and Banks commissioned George Stubbs to paint the result, complete with an imaginative background.

            The illustration engraved from this painting, published in Hawkesworth’s bestselling Account of the Voyages, made the kangaroo a popular sensation.  Scientists, puzzled by the concept of a pouched marsupial, and not knowing how to classify it, debated vigorously and at length.  The public response was much more frivolous:  a dance called the ‘kangaroo hop’ was invented, which took Europe by storm.  Even the great Dr Samuel Johnson was intrigued enough to gather up his coat-tails, and entertain his friends by jumping like a kangaroo.

From Tupaia, Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator, Joan Druett.