WEBBER, John
(b. 1751, London, d. 1793, London)

Biography

English painter of Swiss descent. He was the son of the Swiss sculptor Abraham Wäber, who had moved to London in the early 1740s. In 1757 Webber was sent to Berne for his education: from 1767 to 1770 he was apprenticed to the landscape painter and printmaker Johann Ludwig Aberli, who specialized in mountain and lake views, executed in delicate watercolour and grey wash. From 1770 Webber studied at the Académie Royale in Paris, where he learnt to paint in oil (e.g. Portrait of a Sculptor, early 1770s; Berne, Kunstmuseum). In 1773 and 1774 he toured the countryside around Paris with the engraver Jean Georges Wille, making chalk sketches of picturesque hovels in a hatched, fussy style. Webber's rural landscapes of this period frequently include a genre element, as can be seen in the pen, brush and watercolour drawing of An Amorous Encounter at a Well (1773; Frankfurt am Main, Städelshe Kunstinstitut); this awareness of human incident was to be an important element of his subsequent work.

He was recommended to serve as the official artist on the Resolution by the Swiss naturalist Daniel Solander who had sailed with Cook on his first voyage to the South Seas. Webber joined Cook's crew at Plymouth and later produced several noteworthy images of Nootka Sound. As the draughtsman on Cook's visit to Nootka, John Webber produced drawings that appeared in the Admiralty's official version of Cook's journal, greatly contibuting to its popularity. As the second-most prolific artist on the voyage, he would render 326 paintings and portraits, including preliminary sketches, prior to his death in 1793. Until the advent of photography, Cook's third expedition was the most extensively documented voyage in history.

Webber painted Cook three times from life, twice in 1776 and once in 1777. The third portrait was painted in Tahiti and given by Cook to his friend Chief Tu (Otoo). It has since disappeared. The first two paintings are in the National Portrait Gallery, London, and the National Art Gallery, Wellington.