Pitcairn Islands Study Center: Bounty Paintings Volume 1 

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Fletcher Christian age 18(1c) 
This is a portrait of Christian in a dress coat and unusually holding a cutlass instead of the mandatory chart or a sextant - a clue to the violence that awaits his troubled passage through life? Being well-born Christian was more ambitious of deeds than  position.  This painting shows him at home on the Isle of Man after being selected as a midshipman on the Bounty. He was twenty-seven a little spoilt and enigmatic. The style of painting is seventeenth century northern renaissance with its receding background.
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Fletcher Christian age 33(1d) 
A wiser, less assured Christian stares out from this canvas. The symbolic curtain stands ready to be drawn on his life thus allowing the painter to create the corollary to the first portrait where a door waits to be opened. The eighteenth century loved such visual clues.

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William Bligh(1a) 
A portrait in the manner made popular by the French artist Fragonard - but without any cloying romanticism. It is a representation of Bligh at age thirty-four in his expensive new uniform and on his elevation to Post Captain (Captain without a command). As with most portraits of the day clues to the sitter’s rank, occupation and notoriety become elements in the finished product. Under his hand is a pamphlet advertising the 1789 publication of his Narrative. Its heading is ‘A Voyage to the South Seas.’
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William Bligh(1b) 
Bligh was the only son of a custom’s officer who died soon after Bligh was born. His mother re-married and produced a step-brother who became a pastor and one of Bligh’s greatest defenders. Bligh was a talented man of little means who greatly desired fame and fortune. His book sold well and made a tidy profit. His wife Betsy came from the Isle of Man.
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Departs Portsmouth(2a)  
Because of the technical difficulty of painting night scenes the task is usually attempted without great enthusiasm. This painting, in its own mediocre way, reminisces with some of J.M.W.Turner’s atmospheric works and shows Bounty under sail and disappearing into the distance. A palette of alizarin reds and cobalt and Prussian blues predominate with touches of four yellows. The rendering of the night sky is mostly by the application of transparent glazes.
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Bounty Sails South(2b)
The illustration is a portend to the approach of bad weather and it shows the insignificance of the tiny vessel in the vast southern ocean - as if, as some of the crew thought they were sailing to the precipitous edge of an ancient sea. Small waves break in exactly the same manner as tidal waves and the view of the break in the foreground is a visual clue to what lies in store. Bligh comments in his log, ‘in the afternoon, the sky is much streaked with high wind and I fear the worst.’ How right he was.(B18) 
 
A streaky, lowering sky ...
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Bounty Rounds Cape Horn (2c) 
As we gaze though nature’s sunny smile we see her teeth fully barred ... and, as any sailor will testify ‘to be at the mercy of the sea and to survive is to be born again.’ So is the purpose of this work using warm darks to indicate the infinite depths of the southern ocean - and warm greens show the hopelessness of the situation as the waves rush up to block the light. In his ‘snowstorm at sea’ Turner painted his maelstroms by joining sky and water and all but obliterating the ship. Here and in ‘Bounty’s’ launch from Tofua to Timor’ the vessels are quite clearly depicted, hopefully without the sense of peril being diminished. (In bad weather fires were sensibly banned so hot food was rarely available to he crew - or the many injured sailors on board Bounty. The ship is rigged with minimum sail fore and aft and the wind is from the starboard quarter. After three freezing weeks Bligh finally gives the order to come about and sets a course for Capetown.)

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Bounty arrives Tahitie(2d)  
This large canvas attempts an allegory with the sunrise the beginning in the symbolic sense and a beginning of a visit in the real sense; it is also the beginning of the end as Bligh was to discover. This type of sunrise, sunset - beginning, end, transition was immensely popular in the eighteenth century where night was known as ‘a blind man’s holiday.’ The format is deliberately long and narrow to show the canoes coming from distant shores to welcome the strange visitors. Soon the natives will be swarming the decks of the Bounty. The simple style is in the manner of Cook’s travelling artist Webber but without his inclination for painting the locals as well built Grecian warriors accompanied by voluptuous Rubenesque damsels.
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Bounty Anchored at Point Venus Tahitie(3a) 
A Canaletto style composition with the low foreground and vast sky. It was a style initiated by eighteenth century Venetian painters for atmosphere rather than design (they felt little need to crowd their perfect skies). The clear unpolluted water and the clean unpolluted minds and bodies of the people as they frolic on the shore and in the sea provides the contrast to the ship’s dark menace that stains the bay with the artificiality of what Rousseau described as the 'un-natural structure and artificiality of European society.' A high value Prussian blue begins to invade some of these Otahitean scenes as they  require a different palette.
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The 'Heiva'(3b) 
The ‘heiva’ was preformed in theatres in London and other European cities by dancers imitating what they thought were the movements of the dance. Likewise on the same ‘bill’ were examples of dances of the Hottentots and other exotic entertainments. These were but pale imitations of the reality. Here the illustration attempts to show what was the true joy of the dance.
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Christian's consort, Isabella(3c) 
This intimate portrait seeks to be of a vision only a lover holds in his mind. There is little evidence Fletcher Christian was ever deeply in love with anyone but himself - but then again that is supposedly a pre-requisite for the real thing. The cloth that drapes the girl’s glistening coconut scented body is woven with European colours. A gift from Christian.
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Celebration Feast on Tahitie(3d)  
After a few days the crew are invited ashore for a feast, the usual dancing and good times.

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Mutiny on HMS.’ Bounty’ (with decoration)(4a)

As the first rays of a fiery dawn transverse the deck Bligh is brought up in his nightshirt with his hands tightly bound. Most of the crew are content to stand by and watch the interaction between the protagonists. Christian shouts, ‘Hold your tongue sir, or you are dead this instant.’ These next few moments will determine the course of the rest of their lives and the realisation makes some unsure, some bold, but causes the alarmed majority to huddle in groups so far away from the action as to appear separate - but still within earshot. A vacant space in the center of the panel is there as a reminder of the gulf that had developed in the relationship between Bligh and Christian. The painting is in the neo-classical style of an operatic tableau with the main actors positioned for maximum effect.
 


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Bligh is cast adrift(4b) 
When tragedy occurs in the middle of a calm green tropical sea the words ‘like a painted ship upon a painted ocean’ spring into the mind as if, in some contradictory way the fierceness of human behaviour could only happen in the stillness of fixed colours in setting paint, or on an artificial surface. Thus in such stillness (green being the colour of peace and clam) began a chain of events that would culminate in death - by illness in Batavia, by drowning on the Pandora, hangings at Portsmouth - and a bloody massacre on Pitcairn. Today there is a preoccupation with the subject of the painting filling the picture or touching the edges of the frame. The grand manner saw the subject reduced to a smaller element in a larger scene that otherwise hides clues to the narrative (here the discarded pot plants, circling sharks and distant storm).
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Tofua to Timor (4c) 
The enormity of the task, the desperate nature of their situation and the insignificance of their plight to an uncaring ocean is the preoccupation of this scene. Wet, cold and perpetual motion in an open box was the fate of those clinging to the Bounty’s launch. In construction the picture is based on a centralised dark and bottomless well. The action, like a whirlpool, gathers momentum as it drags at the edges of the picture. Overlaying this is a geometric construction of triangles and parallel lines as if to show that even in chaos nature has a design or an order. Still there is little relief for the eye ... and deliberately so as there was precious little relief for the sailors! Foam streaks the surface but there are no waves breaking. Bligh struggles with the tiller in an attempt to turn the boat into the threatening swell.
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Bligh sails into Coupang(4d)  
Giving no hint of the perils of his passage the proud Bligh stands erect as the launch sails into ‘civilisation.’ This was the London idealised version and   here Bligh could as well be sailing into a Dutch or English port. In reality two or three square rigged ships did stand at anchor in the busy Coupang harbour on that day but Bligh’s men were in such a perilous state they could hardly lift themselves to see over the gunwales - and thereby bear any witness to their salvation. Held in artist's collection.
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continue to volume 2
including 'the mutiny' and the 'Bounty set afire'

Copyright © John Hagan. 2000 - all rights reserved.
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