Webber’s House Interior: Original Watercolour

1778 Watercolour by John Webber of the interior of a house in Nootka Sound. Source: State Library of New South Wales. Click for original.

A few days ago I posted a beautiful watercolour of Nootka Sound by John Webber, artist on Cook’s third voyage.  In the ensuing discussion, it was brought up how nice it would be to see the original watercolours of more of his paintings, which often formed the basis for the  numerous engraved reproductions which are what one normally sees.  The loss of information in moving from the original to the engraving is something of an unknown quantity, and I for one had never seen the watercolours.  Until yesterday!

Typical engraved version (slightly cropped?) of the Webber painting. Source: UW.

I’ll focus on the watercolour of the  (probable) Yuquot house interior today, and tomorrow look at the exterior view of this village in Nootka Sound.  By looking at the original compared to the engraved version (above), which I found at the State Library of New South Wales, several things jump out at me.

Detail of hearth area. Source: State Library of NSW.

The hearth area is  instructive.  You can clearly see whole fish, probably herring,  being cooked over the fire,  impaled through the middle.  Most interesting, the activity in the foreground is clearly shown as being the manipulation of hot rocks into a bentwood box, using large wooden tongs.  The red staining on the face of some individuals is also quite intriguing: most likely this is a simple rendering of the face-painting which is well recorded for the northern coast and the interior by Franz Boas – and, as we will see, by Webber himself in his detailed portraits of these people.   The rendering of the whale fin effigy clearly shows its affinity to the one found at Ozette (below)  yet whereas the Ozette one had a Thunderbird design done in sea otter teeth, the Webber one shows a simpler geometric design, but also apparently done with teeth and some sort of banding, which also appears to be slightly raised.  There is a notable tolerance for larger things on the floor, household archaeologists take note! And in the back left, that appears to be a mega-basket filled with firewood?  A similar object is seen in the very upper left of the original,  and two paddles roughly tossed in behind the sleeping platform

Richard Daugherty with a whale fin effigy found at Ozette. Source: WSU.

From all the black and white engravings I have seen, I never realized the carved house posts were painted, but the watercolour clearly shows red accenting (below).  More mundanely, you can see that some of the fish hanging from the rafters are not fillets but entire fish hanging tail-down.  In the far left of the original, as are some more whole fish, with deeply forked tails.  I’d also like to know what the gourd-like objects are hanging from the poles to the right.

Detail of right hand house post and dried fish. Source: State Library of New South Wales.

Overall, the painting offers some very revealing  insight into the material culture of Nuu-chah-nulth people at the time of European contact, over and above what the derivative engravings of the painting show.  Tomorrow I will post on Webber’s exterior view of the houses, and in due course on the portrait paintings he made.  I look forward to comments from the highly knowledgeable readers of this blog!

25 responses to “Webber’s House Interior: Original Watercolour

  1. qmackie – thanks so much for finding these originals – it was me that wished for them. It must be the faerie in you that granted my wish 🙂

    There is an awful lot to comment on here. I am not sure that the painting or an original sketch was done in the house. For instance, the poles that hold the fish drying racks are under the roof beams – how are they attached? One is resting on top of side planks but the planks are not visibly slung within the pairs of poles that are said in many places to extend down the sides of houses to hold the boards in place. It is generally accepted (and indeed still visible at one house at Kiix?in – see Mackie and Williamson) that there were rafter beams on top of the house beams on which the roof boards rested. These are missing from the drawing too. Maybe at this time and this location none of these things were used. However, some of those drying racks are not visibly attached to anything. I would expect a rope holding the frame. I doubt that wooden pegs would do the trick over time – too much downward force and jiggling when fish are put on and off.

    So, to me the details might be inexact, which would be true for a sketch or painting done from memory, or largely from memory. Overall though, this is a terrific image packed with information. Much more could be said, and I am sure others will weigh in. I might as well when I have time.

    BTW, those little gourd like things could be small bladders of fish or whale oil in the gut of a fish or sea mammal. Other observers (I think it was Swan) have noted that there can be seal lion skins full of whale oil hung from the ceiling.

    Reference: Mackie AP, Williamson L.Nuu-chah-nulth houses: structural remains and cultural depressions on southwest Vancouver Island. In: Matson RG, Coupland G, Mackie Q, editors. Emerging from the mist: studies in northwest coast
    culture history.Vancouver, Toronto: UBC Press; 2003.


    • Interesting comment, APM. I am sure you are right that the watercolour was not done from life, which makes me think there must be a lot of Webber sketch books out there which he then worked into these paintings. I wonder where they are.

      As for rafter beams, I have a PDF of the book chapter you refer to and I think these illustrate your point:

      Reference: Mackie AP, Williamson L.Nuu-chah-nulth houses: structural remains and cultural depressions on southwest Vancouver Island. In: Matson RG, Coupland G, Mackie Q, editors. Emerging from the mist: studies in northwest coast
      culture history.Vancouver, Toronto: UBC Press; 2003.


  2. One other interesting detail which I had intended to comment on in your earlier post of the Webber landscape painting and which is missing here. In the landscape painting several people have something ringing their ankles – anklets or tattoos or? In this image, none of the visible legs have such decorations.


  3. wool dog, wool dog! not surprisingly hanging out in the kitchen….much like my wool dog does today.


    • Hey M Berkey — notice how the obvious dog in the watercolour has become a human in the engraving! I knew something was lost in translation but never imagined this kind of “bark, stripped”


  4. If thats a wool dog – and it certainly has the same look as Kane’s – isn’t that like only the second one illustrated?

    Those house posts don’t have beams atop them; I think thats what always bothered me about the engraved versions I’d seen. As well as the art style doesn’t look right, even given the different regional look that Nuu-chah-nulth art had.

    THe tapered baskets atop boxes just to the left of the left-most house post are almost certainly qa?awc (thats the Ditidaht word, not sure the Nuu one). They are drawn looking suspiciously like European wicker baskets, whereas they should be in the classic wrapped twining technique. I think you guys are right, this ‘original’ is actually from sketches.

    Generally speaking though I’m surprised how true the engravings are.

    “Bark, stripped”, top marks for puns today!

    Do you think we would ever have figured out the whale effigy without the Ozette example?

    Interesting that there are no large fish species evident. THey are all oolachen/surf smelt/herring sized.


  5. A long time ago I got to an exhibition of the original Webber watercolours. I was really blown away to see all the details in them. I remember first realizing then that the famous carved figures were not house posts at all but carved planks set up for display. There’s just an amazing amount of information in this image. I’ve been staring at a large version of the engraving that I own while working on analysis of the excavated floor at Huu7ii – it really helps to visualize the activities that took place in these houses! It’s quite reassuring to see that the engraved versions really are quite faithful to the original watercolour.


  6. Regarding the architectural mixups, note that the low divider wall on the extreme right seems to have three sets of paired stakes, each pair tied together. I wonder if these pairs were originally on both sides of the planks with the ties for suspension? From what I remember of Mauger, there were lots of double stakes of all kinds at Ozette, not just for walls.


  7. Quentin, is that really an original watercolour at the State Library of NSW – or a coloured engraving? I thought the original watercolour sketch of this scene was at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University. Certainly that is where I’ve obtained good photos of it and that’s where John Sendey (In his Nootkan Pictorial book) credits the original as being. As I look carefully at the NSW and Peabody images, there are slight differences. For example, the woman (?) on the bench near the left has two paddles behind her in the Peabody sketch and is looking in a different direction than the NSW image. In the latter image, that person is identical to the engraving. So I really wonder if that is just a coloured engraving – or if two near-identical sketches exist!


    • Hi amcmillan,

      Well, I guess that is possible. The pale red frame-line and the very clean termination of the paint suggests perhaps a coloured engraving. The accession information is here:


      The Nootka Sound images are #s 21-24 in their catalogue. The accession notes:

      Titled, in pencil, below the image on mount.
      40 drawings by J. Webber (5 signed, 2 dated), together with 6 watercolours of the first voyage, including one signed by J. Barralet, and 3 engraved portraits.
      `Illustrations of Cook’s voyages: original drawings by Webber’ — spine title
      Numbers 14, 15, 43, 44, 45 & 46 correspond to engraved plates nos. 7, 16, 1, 2, 5, 6 respectively in An account of the voyages undertaken by the order of His present Majesty, for making discoveries in the southern hemisphere, and successively performed by Commodore Byron, Captain Wallis, Captain Carteret and Captain Cook, in the Dolphin, the Swallow, and the Endeavour : drawn up from the journals which were kept by the several commanders, and from the papers of Joseph Banks, Esq. / by John Hawkesworth.
      This suggests that the 4 images of Nootka Sound in the NSW album were *not* included in or engraved into the canonical “Account of the Voyages….”

      Why there would be two almost identical paintings I don’t know, it does make sense that this could be a coloured engraving that differs in subtle ways from the more widely disseminated versions. It would also explain why it seems notably muddier than the British Museum sketch I posted the other day. I’d be looking for someone more familiar with this kind of material than me to chime in.


    • This seems to be the Peabody image, there are clear differences such as the dog behind the fire has moved to one side and become a child, and the paddles have moved.

      For comparison, here is a different version of the one from the other day with the canoe pulled up to shore and a man drinking from a creek. The changes from painting to engraving are pretty clear on this one



  8. I concur with APM that the gourd like objects are likely bladders of oil.

    To answer Morley’s question, “Do you think we would ever have figured out the whale effigy without the Ozette example?”
    Yes, because there is one other example. It is from Quileute and was photographed early in 1905. See the photo in the U of W library here: http://content.lib.washington.edu/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/loc&CISOPTR=1726&CISOBOX=1&REC=14
    The caption in the album stated that this was a “Tamanaous head rest.” This gave me a bit of a chuckle. The informant must have had a good laugh too (after Mr. Meany had left).
    I believe the thunderbird on the side of the Ozette example is a better clue to the purpose of these objects.
    I am very intrigued by the paddle like tool used to move the hot stones into the cooking box. Are there any other examples of this tool in existence?


  9. Hi Tenas

    Holy – I’ve never heard a word about that Quileute example. It appears to be made out of metal? Or leather?

    Just to be “that guy” I guess it is possible all three examples are, in fact, head-rests. The pokey shells might be a hindrance, but the Quileute example has an oval depression or hole which I for one would like to see if the back of my head fit into, for a whale of a nap.


  10. To me the whale fin effigy from Quileute appears to be constructed of wood. If you look closely at the surface to the left of the hole you can see the wood grain. Also there are horizontal lines that would indicate it is composed of planks pegged or tongue and grooved together. The photographer reported that it was inlayed with shells.

    I’ve noticed that in most art of the region form matches function. As a head rest these objects wouldn’t seem very functional. That’s why I have my doubts.

    The Quileute example give me a good starting point for an investigation, and I intend to follow up some day (if someone else wishes to do the legwork and share… well, that would be great). I would think that a number of individuals visited Quileute around the turn of the century and saw this object. Maybe someone gathered a more detailed account of the object’s use and it found its way into print.

    The first of these effigies I saw was the one from Ozette. My immediate impression then was that it was paraphernalia for a ritual. Thought it would be worn upon the back while enacting a tale.

    Then I stumbled across the photo from Quileute (I agree, Holy — ). The hole in the side had me really excited. I figured it would be symmetrical and there would be a hole at the same location on the other side. Figured these would be arm holes. In front of the fin there’s a concavity. I was thinking that if a person were wearing this on his/her back, stooped over, this concavity would allow them to bend their neck and lift their head up a little (are you following my reasoning?). The problem with all of this is that I don’t know if there is a hole in the other side, and the hole that is visible seems too high for an arm hole.

    One thing I especially want to point out… these are amazing examples of joinery, the equal of any bentwood box. As a woodworker it just numbs my mind to ponder how someone could construct something like this using a beaver’s tooth hand chisel. It seems like a lot of effort for a head rest.

    So here are my conjectures:
    1. It is a head rest just as the informant stated. Chief Chenamas had a carved tamanowas figure that he would sit against when he felt weak or ill. He claimed he could feel the tamanowas power flow from the figure into his body. Maybe the headrest acted in the same manner.

    2. It’s paraphernalia for the enacting of the South Wind myth (a transformation myth) or a similar myth. The performer would wear the fin upon his back, and at the point where South Wind cuts the Orca crossways, rather than lengthways, the fin is tossed off and the actor stands upright to reveal the Thunderbird paraphernalia he was wearing beneath.

    3. (This is my favorite) You will notice on the example from Quileute that there is a strange pattern of wear to the left of the hole. At first I thought this discoloration was paint, but then I noticed that the shells to the left of the hole are missing and the lip of the hole is actually worn thin there. The wear extends below the hole, as well as up and over the fin. The pattern would match (I feel) perfectly to a child’s legs wrapped round the fin. So my thought is that the object was used in the retelling of the one of the Whale Rider myths, and that children would be allowed to ride about the lodge upon the object during the enactment. The pattern of wear would indicate generations of use. I could only imagine that such a tale, and such an enactment, would be a perennial favorite among both young and old.

    Okay, this is all romanticism and ridiculous conjecture, but the thought of a child riding about a lodge on one of these adds a human touch to an object that is otherwise cold and lifeless
    Thanks for the forum


  11. Tenas, that’s a great comment, thank you. I agree close examination suggests it was carefully made of wood, and perhaps burnished to produce a glossy surface. Similar, maybe, to the wet skin of a whale?

    Your description of the whale rider re-enactment is quite emotional reading. I’m not familiar with the ceremony, mind you, being focused on very unromantic bones and stones.

    I wonder what species of whale is represented in these? The “whaler’s trophy” idea would suggest humpback or grey whale. Yet the latter have no real fin, and the former have a mch wider-based one. NW Coast artists are often very careful observers of the natural environment.

    I suppose they could be Orca fins, mythologically powerful but not generally hunted – nor are their bones at all common in any sites I know of. But to my eye, they don’t strongly resemble Orca fins,being too back-swept and short – if they are Orcas, certainly not males, which is interesting in its own right.

    The species which is both reasonably common around here, and which they resemble the most, is actually the Minke whale.
    So far as I know, Minke whales also do not enter the archaeological record with any real frequency.

    Anyway, I might turn your photo-find into a proper post since no one may ever read this discussion. Thanks again.


  12. My understanding is that these represent the whalers cut of meat – the whaler got the “saddle”, which incudes the dorsal fin. The importance of this cut is that it contained the sinews necessary for making the lanyard which is attached to the whaling harpoon. The lanyard is of a phenomenally sophisticated construction to give both strength and stretch, recently replicated in climbing ropes. If I recall, and its been decades since I read this stuff so a warning that some details may be out, it has a core of sinew which is wrapped in a spiral by more sinew. When the lanyard is pulled by a whale, it stretches and as it stretches the spiral of sinew tightens on the core giving it strength. Anyway, if I have the details a bit wrong, someone is likely to correct me, and they are not so important to my point, which is that the whaler, who has a hereditary privilege and long training for the job, can only continue to hunt if he gets his cut of the whale. Which is (one of the reasons) why representations of the saddle of the whale are so important.


  13. If so, then they are not illustrating the cut from Gray whales, and not going out of their way to make it a realistic humpback whale cut either, in my opinion. But twoeyes can chime in here: Minke is not a whale of much note archaeologically is it? Has the DNA been sought when those DNA studies on archaeological whale were done? My impression is Minkes are speedy whales, maybe hard to hunt.

    The sinew thing does sound extraordinary and ingenious.


  14. So, I am contradicted in some details by T.T. Waterman (The whaling equipment of the Makah – fantastic publication).


    On page 34 and 37 he clearly indicates the lanyard to be whale sinew, but it is a complex composite construction that includes also nettle fibre cord and cherry bark and/or sea lion gut and it sounds like the chords that go into the lanyards construction and themselves wrapped spirally.

    On page 46 he describes the ceremonies surrounding the removal and care of the saddle. The Makah word for the saddle is translated or described (p.49) as “taboo piece”.

    This work of Waterman’s ties back to the discussions on your Mastodon post of yesterday. The killing of large animals involves very complex equipment and rituals, most of which do not survive, or cannot be recognised, in the archaeological record. In that respect, I don’t see why a symbolic representation of a whale’s saddle needs to accurately depict the fin of any one species, it may be representing all whales that are hunted.


  15. Great post APM… Brilliant! These would make perfect sense as wealth or status objects, and that would go a long way to explain the effort that went into making them. I know that among some tribes, even when a whale washed ashore, certain families had rights to certain parts.

    I need to read Waterman’s work on Makah whaling. I’m glad you brought that up, it’s one I’ve been meaning to get to. I ran across a number of bound volumes from the Heye at an estate sale years ago, they contained all three parts of Waterman’s paraphernalia of the Duwamish spiritcanoe ceremony. Really enjoyed reading them.

    I do have one observation to share with regards to the what these objects are meant to represent. When Swan retold the South Wind myth he specifically mentioned that the whale was a “grampus.” This is a term he brought with him from the east coast and refers to a small sized, toothed, black, whale. I’ve always assumed he was referring to an orca. This would have been information he received directly from his informant (most likely Que-a-quim). The story teller made a point of describing the type of whale to Swan. Additional I agree with qmackie, it appears the people of the Northwest Coast tried to represent a specific species when they included a whale in their art. So I’m not sold on the notion that they are using an archetype here.

    So anatomically… what are we looking at? I’m still leaning towards orca. I photographed a pod from the ferry once while traveling to Victoria, and dang if these don’t look a lot like the fins poking out of the water that day.

    Now to toss in a monkey wrench or two… Could this be a Pacific White Sided Dolphin?

    And… wait for it… this is really gonna make you crazy… there’s a bigger anatomical problem than the fin. Note that the body is shaped like an inverted “V.” Marine mammals have flat backs. A fish would have this “V” shape. Are we looking at the adipose fin of a salmon?!

    DOH!!! Asking questions only leads to more questions!


  16. Tenas – I like the left-field idea that these things are salmon! Turn it all on its head! I guess the T-Bird motif on the Ozette one turned thoughts towards a whale from the outset based on certain histories.

    I guess all else being equal, they’re probably Humpback whale fins but Orca is intriguing if, as I noted, they are female Orcas – surely they are not male Orcas. And, well, in the story you cite it does sound like it is an Orca – but the connection to the effigies is tentative.

    http://wildwhales.org/watching-whales/identifying-species/ (see humpback there)

    While we’re tossing out ideas, Blue Whales would have been massively impressive visitors, and much more common than today. Fin:

    And the Fin whale is also an extremely large, impressive whale with a highly notable fin (hence the name) which is a good fit:

    I do work from the position that the effigies were probably representing a particular species of whale but of course this is a working orientation and as APM notes they may be generic whale fins.


  17. When I first saw the photo from Quileute I was thinking the pattern on the effigy was painted. I was assuming the representation was of an orca fin and that the markings were those typical of an orca (though it was odd that they were in front of the fin rather than behind it). As I mentioned before I reconsidered this notion and started to see the markings as some form of wear. I’ve been doing some reading on the Quileute over the past few days and I now have a more plausible explanation for the marks. In 1889 a white settler who wished to drive the natives off of their lands set fire to the Quileute village, burning it to the ground. It was reported that all of their old artifacts had been destroyed in this fire. The photo would seem to indicate that some artifacts did survived, though perhaps not unscathed. The darkened area on the fin effigy may be a burnt section.

    I find myself wondering what became of the effigy. The photograph was taking in 1905 by Edmond S. Meany. I don’t find any mention of the effigy anywhere else. A host of ethnologist published works on the Quileute (Andrade, Farrand, Reagan, Frachtenberg). Their research began not too many years after the photo was taken. None mention the effigy.

    It seems to have disappeared from La Push soon after the photo was taken. Was it “collected?” A number of institutions were actively gathering such items, and many of these “collectors” poorly cataloged their acquisitions. Perhaps this effigy is sitting in the vaults of some museum waiting to be rediscovered?

    The man who took the photo was a professor at the University of Washington. In 1906 he became the managing editor of the Washington Historical Quarterly. Perhaps he mentions the effigy in one of those early quarterly?

    In 1882 Mr. A. (Allison) W. Smith and his wife came to La Push. He was the teacher at the Quileute Day School. He resigned the position in June of 1905 after his wife’s death. Could he have taken the effigy with him? A farewell gift for 22 years of devotion to the tribe? An investigation of his papers would seem a good place to begin a search, they are now in the Yale University Library.


  18. I’d been making a mistake and interpreting/seeing the white/dark vertical patchiness beneath the fin as a reflection (!) which is why I initially thought it was super glossy and perhaps made of leather or metal. Now I am looking at it differently, hmm, maybe it could be charring of some kind, or the wear you suggested earlier from use.

    What makes you say it disappeared from La Push shortly after, Tenas? Your theory sounds plausible but of course there are so many other possible stories. However, if it was in a museum or had been bought by collectors (as might be common at the time) then it seems like it would be known or recognized now. If it is in a small private collection, perhaps not – which could be the sort of collection that Smith might have had. It sure could bear some detective work, I am sure the community would love to track it down, if it still exists, and of course many of us would just love to see more of it.


  19. I postulated that the effigy disappeared shortly after 1905 because none of the ethnologists that visited La Push in the years subsequent to the photograph mention it.

    As for the “collectors…” well… that’s an interesting story all on its own.

    The book Captured Heritage does a fine job of chronicling the strip-mining of artifacts from the various native peoples of the Northwest Coast. By 1905 most of the major museums had filled their vaults with these treasures, and were no longer interested in acquisitions from the region. Because demand for the artifacts fell off, their prices also fell. Smaller museums with smaller budgets were able to purchase significant pieces. In addition to this, you had a number of curio shops regularly buying and selling items at trifling prices. Collectors were still actively gathering objects for sale to museums and curio shops, but they were competing for smaller and smaller pay checks. Because they did not wish their competitors to know where they had acquired their pieces, they kept the origins secret, not even telling the curators at the museums they were selling to.

    It’s a pretty ugly picture, and one of the reasons we today see items attributed to a culture without any provenance to back this up.

    If this were not troubling enough, there is one more wrinkle. Starting around the 1950’s many museums began deaccessioning artifacts to make room for other collections. Art museums in particular were clearing out unwanted “craft” items and replacing them with “fine art.” They generally kept only those items they felt were significant. As the dig at Ozette was still decades away, the significance of the artifact from La Push would not have been understood.

    If the artifact from La Push left there in 1905 there’s no telling where it ended up, or even if it is still in existence.

    Our best hope is that the photo begins to circulate. Perhaps someone somewhere will recognize it.

    I’ll continue my search for a paper trail, but there appears to be no mention of the object anywhere.


  20. This is a minor footnote, but there is a petroglyph that I would interpret as a whale rider located on Mudge Island. It was documented by Mary Bentley and I can send someone an image of her rubbing if they email me.


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