An unusual new addition to the National Maritime Collection
The death of Captain Cook may seem a bizarre scene for a tea tray, but such an item was the perfect gift for wealthy industrialist Henry Bolckow. His grand home Marton Hall was built on the site of James Cook’s birthplace, and this connection inspired Bolckow to amass one of the finest Cook collections ever assembled.
Japanned papier-mâché tea tray bearing the patent mark of Henry Clay and painted with a scene of the death of Captain Cook. Image Andrew Frolows/ANMM
"The tray was a particularly apt gift to Henry Bolckow given his known collection and interest in Cook memorabilia."
"The announcement of Cook’s death was the focus of a national outpouring of grief, expressed through a variety of theatre, poetry and art."
There, he became the leader of a group of artists known as the Bristol School. He was known as an historical painter and was elected a member of the Royal Academy in 1815. It was Edward Bird who painted the death of Captain Cook on the tea tray. The scene is based on a painting (now held by the National Library of Australia) produced by artist George Carter in 1781, only months after the return of Resolutionand Discovery to England in October 1780 and the announcement of Cook’s death. This was the focus of a national outpouring of grief, expressed through a variety of theatre, poetry and art. Demand was such that Carter produced a second large oil in 1783 (now held by the Bernice P Bishop Museum, Hawaii), and an engraving based on the painting in 1784.
Which brings us to John J Bagshaw, who gave the tea tray to Henry Bolckow. John James Bagshaw (or Bagshawe; 1835–1875) was born in Sheffield and established the Thames Steel Works there, manufacturing cast steel piston rods, shafts, forgings and a range of tools. He was listed in the 1867 Institute of Mechanical Engineers Proceedings as a Member since 1865.
Given our knowledge of the above, the japanned tea tray by Henry Clay, with a scene of the death of Captain Cook painted by Edward Bird, after the work of artist George Carter, was produced between 1785 to 1794, probably in the latter part of that period, after Bird had honed his skills to a high level.
Advertisement for Henry Clay in Bissett’s Magnificent Guide or Grand Copperplate Directory for the Town of Birmingham, 1808
It is unknown who owned the tray before John James Bagshaw acquired it in the mid-19th century, but the tray was a particularly apt gift to Henry Bolckow given his known collection and interest in Cook memorabilia. Bagshaw and Bolckow were both deeply involved in the iron and steel industries centred in the north of England, both shared an interest in art, and both were contributors to the National Exhibition of Works of Art held at Leeds in 1868, where one of Bolckow’s works exhibited was a portrait of Captain Cook by John Webber. In the same year, Bolckow purchased the Endeavour journal and Admiralty secret instructions.
Henry Bolckow built Marton Hall in the late 1850s. Although the inscription on the back of the tea tray is undated, given the multiple associations between the two men around 1868 and Bolckow’s newly acquired political position, it is likely that John J Bagshaw gave the tray to Henry Bolckow between 1868 and his own death in 1875.
Inscription on reverse of tea tray: ‘The Death of Captain Cook. Painted by Edward Bird R.A. Apprenticed to a tray maker of Birmingham. Born 1772, Died 1819. Presented to HWF Bolckow, Esqr. Marton Hall by John J. Bagshaw, Sheffield.’ Image Andrew Frolows/ANMM
Fundraising to assist with the purchase of this important tea tray will be the focus of our end-of-financial year campaign.
Death of Captain Cook, 1781, Oil on canvas, National Library of Australia collection
Death of Captain James Cook, 1783, Oil on canvas, Bernice P Bishop Museum, Honolulu
The Death of Captain Cook by the Indians of O,Why,ee, one of the Sandwich Islands, 1779; engraving after George Carter published by George Carter, Sayer and Bennett, London, 1784 in the collections of the National Maritime Museum, London, National Library of Australia and State Library of NSW
This article originally appeared in Signals 126 (March 2019).