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Elegant Engravings of the Pacific: Illustrations of James Cook’s Expeditions in British Eighteenth-Century Magazines

James Cook’s expeditions to the Pacific were unprecedented in late eighteenth-century Britain, and in the years following the expeditions, extraordinary images of the region were presented to the public. The drawings and paintings made by the artists during the expeditions became the basis for dozens of artworks, which brought to life areas of the world that had previously been little known to Europeans. While these were available to a limited public, tens of thousands of British consumers encountered images of the Pacific through magazine illustrations that were subsequently based on those art works. Published in several leading British magazines in the 1770s and 1780s, these illustrations circulated widely and reached people across Britain and in the American colonies, integrating the Pacific into consumer culture in a way that no other product could. They constituted a rich discourse about the Pacific which was informed by the written accounts and ambitious post-voyage art works, but ultimately separated from them: they were a unique set of representations, the production of which was determined above all by the magazine industry. The magazines presented their readers with the most exotic and spectacular glimpses of the Pacific that they could possibly offer, and they achieved this primarily through a focus on indigenous peoples’ bodies and dress; accuracy, context, and nuance were often diminished as images were adapted and edited for magazine production. Ultimately, these engravings played a critical role in the construction of the idea of the Pacific, at a time when British colonial activity in that region was just beginning.