The art of spin: painting shows how engravers brushed over Cook's demise

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When the explorer Captain James Cook was killed on the island of Hawaii, the tragedy was immortalised as the murder of a peaceable man.

When the explorer Captain James Cook was killed on the island of Hawaii, the tragedy was immortalised as the murder of a peaceable man.

But more than two centuries later, a painting has been discovered that shows a rather different version of Cook's demise, with the captain engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the islanders.

Dozens of aquatints produced after his death in 1779 show Cook acting the peace-maker in a dispute over the theft of a boat. He was shown signalling his ships to cease firing on the Hawaiians, only to be stabbed in the back of the neck and killed.

This image of Cook became the authorised version of his death, described in the official account of the voyage by Lieutenant James King, who succeeded him as captain, and depicted by John Webber, the official voyage artist.

But a painting by John Cleveley, on which the etchings were based, exposes another version of that February day when Cook, far from trying to calm the situation, fought the Hawaiians.

Based on eye-witness accounts and on sketches made by a carpenter on Cook's final voyage, Cleveley showed a version of events which chimes with what most historians believe today. Cleveley died in 1786 and by the time his four watercolours were turned into aquatints by John Martyn two years later, the changes to the scene had been made.

Clevely's previously unknown work makes clear that 18th-century engravers deployed the art of spin to boost sales of etchings depicting Cook's final moments at the hands of an angry mob.

They certainly proved popular, with many examples surviving. Because the aquatints were coloured by hand, owners often believe that they owned the originals and the auction house Christie's has received dozens of calls over the years from people claiming to have the Cleveley watercolours.

But Nicholas Lambourn, of Christie's, said yesterday that the auction house was thrilled when the genuine ones turned up.

"Almost every person who has the prints thinks they were the original watercolours. So when another client rings up saying, we have the original Cleveley watercolours, it's almost like crying wolf," he said.

"But when the photographs [we saw] showed the death of Cook incident was different, we immediately jumped in the car and rushed to see them."

Nobody had known until now that the Martyn set of aquatints, called Views in the South Seas , were so clearly an act of historical revisionism.

"The paintings were edited when they came to make the print, they completely changed the death of Cook to bring it into line with the authorised version," Mr Lambourn said.

The works have been in a family descended from the Quaker philanthropist Ann Hopkins Smith, from Buckinghamshire.

Mr Lambourn said: "I think the family knew that the paintings were of historic interest, but didn't know that they were of commercial interest. There is a lot of interest in Cook around the world."

The set is estimated to make up to £150,000 when it is sold in an auction of exploration and travel items on 23 September. Other items in the sale include Cook's pocket hammer, given to his friend and patron, Sir George Jackson, secretary to the Admiralty.

Cook died on his third voyage of discovery, during which he became the first European to set foot on Hawaii, while attempting to find the fabled - and non-existent - north-west passage.

Some early accounts suggest that the Hawaiians originally treated him like a god. But tensions mounted when the Hawaiians began to pilfer from Cook's ships and the situation came to a head over a stolen boat.

Surrounded by a mob of Hawaiians, Cook signalled for his men to retrieve him but this appears to have been misinterpreted as a command for them to retreat. He was clubbed in the back of the head and stabbed to death.

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