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Monday, September 15, 2014

Tupaia's lorikeet

To my surprise, today I received an envelope from Valerie in Australia, containing a print-out of an item that had been shown on ABC news over there.  The post-it attached read, "Joan, Perhaps this might be of interest. We met on Pacific Pearl in July 2011 -- mostly in the coffee shop."

How thoughtful of her, because the item certainly was of interest. In my biography of Tupaia, the extraordinary Tahitian (originally from Raiatea) who sailed with Captain Cook on the Endeavour, I related an anecdote about the bird that Tupaia captured at Botany Bay in February 1770, and kept as a pet. Weakened by severe scurvy, Tupaia died in Batavia (Jakarta) late that same year, but Joseph Banks looked after the bird, giving it to collector Marmaduke Tunstall after he arrived in London.  It was a story I also told in my lecture on Tupaia and Captain Cook on the cruise ship, and evidently Valerie remembered.

Well, the painting I showed of Tupaia's bird was the one at the top of this post.  Stilted in pose -- as was usual with natural history paintings then -- it is very brightly colored.

It was painted by Peter Brown, a natural history artist who exhibited at the Royal Academy, and was the author of New Illustrations of Zoology, which includes this painting, the earliest published illustration of an Australian bird. The painting is dated November 3, 1774.

Well, according to the ABC news item that Valerie sent me, there is another painting of Tupaia's bird. It created by Moses Griffith in 1772, and is estimated to be the first painting of an Australian bird. It has recently been acquired by the National Library of Australia.  I have no idea what they paid for it, but according to the Sotheby's catalogue  $150,000-$200,000 was confidently expected.

It is certainly a beautiful painting, more graceful than the highly colored Peter Brown version -- but is it the same bird?  If so, why is it so much more drab?

The catalogue gives an excellent explanation. Tupaia, it seems, collected his pet when it was at the junior, perhaps even nestling stage, and so when Griffith painted it in 1772, the lorikeet was still in juvenile plumage. By the time Brown got around to it, two years had passed, and the bird was flaunting full adult colors.

The bird was stuffed after it died, and was put on show for years, finishing up in the Great North Museum, Hancock.  But whether it is still there is impossible to tell, as no one could find a trace of it when I asked.  Maybe it molted away -- but at least two beautiful paintings remain.


Note: The Peter Brown painting is also an illustration in the prizewinning Random House NZ edition of the biography (Tupaia, the Remarkable Story of Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator) but not in the largely unadorned US Praeger version (Tupaia, Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator). It is not in the digital version, either, that edition being text-only.

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