Maritime paintings record the journey of Cook

Clyde Scott, In the Wake of Captain Cook
Oedipus Rex Gallery
Until March 3

In 2020 the country will be celebrating 250 years since the arrival of Captain James Cook in the Marlborough Sounds on January 5. There will be many events leading up to this recognition of Cook, his contact with Maori and his circumnavigation and recording of New Zealand.

One person who has been working on this is for many years is the artist, Clyde Scott, whose project of following in the steps of Cook has seen him replicate the coastline of New Zealand as Captain Cook would have seen it.

His exhibition, In the Wake of Captain Cook, which has just opened traces Captain Cook's travels along the lower part of the North Island and the top of the South Island, mainly around Queen Charlotte Sound.

He has been painting his now familiar paintings on wooden panels since the mid-1990s when he came into possession of a number of timber strakes, the templates used for building clinker dinghies. He eventually saw the possibilities of using these pieces of wood, only a few centimetres deep and up to 4.5 metres long, as the basis for a series of New Zealand coastal landscapes.

He was initially inspired by the drawing of Finnish draughtsman and botanist Herman Sporing, who accompanied Captain Cook on his first voyage to New Zealand. His original drawings were intended to accompany the charts produced by Cook to provide mariners with information about the coasts.

He was also drawn to Anne Salmond's book Two Worlds, and her account of the first encounters between Maori and pakeha from 1642-1772.

In this series of work, he literally follows Captain Cook's path, travelling to the area he wishes to paint, hires a boatman to take him out to sea and photographs the coastline linking the images to create detailed, scale drawings on the strakes which he then paints.

He has so far completed 70 paintings featuring the North Island and part of the South Island in what will be a series that will replicate the circumnavigation by Cook of both islands. Once completed, the work will be the longest painting project ever completed in New Zealand, with a combined length of over 400 metres. It will also be a remarkable panorama of the New Zealand coastline.

In embarking on the paintings Scott has created an invented artist of the 18th century, a combination of himself, Cook and Sporing, producing coloured versions of the topographical drawings in a task that should have been undertaken over two centuries ago.

While these in a sense purport to be images from the 18th century the artist acknowledges his own intervention on all of the works. For instance, on the painting Waterline 40e Cape Koamaroo S.E. Head, Queen Charlotte Sound ($9800), he inscribed the historical data “7th February 1770; Cook left “Queen Charlotte Sounds” and entered Cook Strait first sighted by him 15 days previously.” That text, which could have been inscribed by Sporing, is complemented by a further text which is that of the artist, “Painted here on the pattern (template) of a Strake for a Clinker-Built Dinghy.”

They are also records of the occasions on which the artist has painted them, including the fall of light on the landscape, the sunsets, storms brewing and skies clearing. Scott generally depicts the landscape as it is at present but he has referred back to Sydney Parkinson's drawing of the arch at Mercury Bay, which subsequently collapsed.

There is an almost cinematic quality to each work panning over the landscape, with each of the paintings providing a dramatic recording of the time and place. The artist has indicated on the strakes the extent of the panorama as well as referring to Sporing's own notation. In Waterline 40c “Ship Cove between Motuara Island and Long Island ($10,500), the span of the view is indicated as being ranging NW, NNW, N and NNE.

The artist allows the grids drawn on the strakes to show through the paint and the area below sea level is left completely unpainted while his use of gold copperplate writing inscribed on the works gives an added sense of them being completed by a shipboard observer.

Each of his works is a slice of the New Zealand coastline as well as a slice of New Zealand maritime history, a shared journey of the artist and Cook.

Clyde Scott graduated with a fine arts degree at the Ilam School of Fine Arts (University of Canterbury) and moved to Auckland in the 1960s where he established the advertising agency GSI.

He also had a successful career as a pop singer, hosting several TV shows, and as an actor appeared in the film Sleeping Dogs.