The Laird’s House at Skara Brae on Orkney overlooks the Neolithic settlement, uncovered in a huge storm in 1850. Predating Stonehenge, nothing is really known yet about its prehistoric inhabitants. By contrast in the House we were astonished to see Captain Cook’s tea service from the Resolution. That ship sheltered there with Discovery for two months in 1780 returning from Cook’s ill-fated third voyage. The tea service was a gift from Cook’s successor. On board Resolution were William Bligh and the artist John Webber.
Webber painted Bligh in 1776 at the time he was hand-picked by Cook to be Sailing Master. The painting of Bligh in his master’s uniform is a recent major acquisition by the National Portrait Gallery. Bligh at 25 presents an utterly different figure from the tyrant depicted by his enemies from the Bounty and the Rum Rebellion. Bligh ended his career promoted to vice-admiral of the blue. The portrait came by descent from the family of Bligh’s executor. It joins Webber’s famous portrait of Cook.
The newest of our national collecting institutions, the National Portrait Gallery was commissioned by the Howard Government, opening in 1999. Directed by Angus Trumble, it is a treasure house of thousands of images not only of the great and good but of the not so great or good. Australians loved portraiture even before the enduringly popular Archibald; the NPG brings scholarship to that interest and popularity.
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