Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique is a rare, spectacular, large-scale panoramic wallpaper, printed in colour from woodblocks with colour finishing by hand in Mâcon, France in 1804-5. It was one of the first panoramic wallpapers produced. Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique was printed by the entrepreneur and innovative wallpaper manufacturer, Joseph Dufour after a design by textile and wallpaper designer, Jean-Gabriel Charvet.

There are few complete or near-complete sets of this wallpaper in the world, and the majority are in private hands. The set Te Papa has purchased contains 18 of the 20 original “drops” of wallpaper, and has a total size of 2 metres high by 10 metres wide.

The wallpaper depicts scenes inspired by the many publications and images made following Cook’s voyages to the Pacific. It is significant historically as one of the most ambitious transformations of the visual material from Cook’s voyages into a large scale panoramic wallpaper, acting as a visual culmination of European preoccupation with the Pacific.

Kid glove treatment at Te Papa for the Dufour wallpaper. This section comprises panels 17 – 20.

The wallpaper was popular and was sold throughout Europe and in North America where it adorned the interiors of wealthy individuals. It was intended that the wallpaper could be broken into smaller sequences to accommodate various domestic settings. It offered a kind of ‘armchair tourism’, intended to transport viewers to another time and place. Altogether this example depicts 23 different indigenous groups from throughout the Pacific, from Alaska, to New Zealand.

This acquisition is of great significance to Te Papa’s collections as its subject and materials cross many portfolios – Art, History, Pacific cultures, Mātauranga Māori and Decorative arts. It will be a significant addition to Te Papa’s collections relating to Cook’s Pacific expeditions and encounters with indigenous people in the region, extending Te Papa’s representation of the Cook story well into the Pacific. Te Papa’s combined collections of Cook materials and Pacific exploration include treasures such as Maori and Pacific artefacts collected on Cook’s voyages; Sir Joseph Banks’ herbarium specimens and collection of engravings of botanical specimens after Sydney Parkinson (Banks’ Florilegum); the Carter collection of rare books on the early European exploration of New Zealand and the Pacific; paintings by John Webber of Cook, Poetua and Ship Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound; and prints illustrating Cook’s voyages.

Since the 1980s there has been renewed interest in Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique in Australasia and the Pacific. While it can be seen as a window onto the past, reflecting the beliefs and preoccupations of the time, it also offers a means to reflect upon the profound shifts that have occurred over the past few decades in terms of the European perspectives of previously colonised cultures. It has become a focus of attention for indigenous peoples addressing cultural identity, and revisiting the stereotypes and representations of their forebears. Most recently, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique has been reinterpreted by New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana. Her ambitious digital work In Pursuit of Venus [infected] brings the historical wallpaper to life through collaborations with indigenous peoples of the Pacific. This has brought the historical wallpaper well into the minds of contemporary audiences.

Feature image above: Detail of panels 4 – 6 from: Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique  (The native peoples of the Pacific Ocean).  Designed by Jean-Gabriel Charvet, French, 1750–1829, printed by Joseph Dufour et Cie, Mâcon, France, 1797–1835. Te Papa 2015–0048–1

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