History of Art


Ben Pollitt


I graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA (Hons.) in English Literature in 1996 and from Birkbeck College, University of London, with an MA in History of Art in 2015. I have twenty years’ experience working in the education sector.


Sympathy Unbound: Dissonance and Attachment in the Pacific Works of John Webber

My research focuses on the work of John Webber (1751-1793), the artist who accompanied Captain James Cook on his third voyage (1776-1780). My overarching concern relates to contemporary debates around sympathy. At once a mysterious force capable of binding things as well as people together and a guiding moral principle, the word sympathy in the late eighteenth century blurred the boundaries between superstition and Enlightenment rationality. Sympathy was certainly at its most semantically expansive during this period, associated, among other things, with fellow feeling, contagion, transfusion, the great chain of being, electro-magnetism, autonomic reflexes and the principle of caprice. What light, I ask, might these divergent definitions of the term shed on the voyage and its encounters and, in seeking to manifest sympathy, how do Webber’s images articulate its contested meanings?

Research interests

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British visual/material culture, empire, encounter and the contact zone, affect, sympathy, anthropology, memory and memorialization, archives, art theory, history of science and technology, colour and weather.


Critical Histories of Art Studentship, UCL, 2017-19

Caird Short-Term Research Fellowship 2018

Paul Mellon Research Support Grant 2017

Andrew Wyld Research Support Grant 2015


Journal Articles

‘Sympathy, Magnetism and Immoderate Laughter: the Feather in Cook’s Last Voyage,’ The Art Bulletin, 101, no. 4 (Dec. 2019). (forthcoming)

‘The Cost of Sympathy: Towards a Visual Economics of John Webber’s Atlas,’ Object: Graduate Research and Reviews in the History of Art and Visual Culture, no. 19 (2017)


‘Review of “Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past,” Tate Britain, London, 25 November 2015 – 10 April 2016,’ in Object: Graduate Research and Reviews in the History of Art and Visual Culture, no. 18 (2016).

Catalogue Essays

‘European Rivers c. 1824-39,’ in Tate’s online catalogue J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolors. (forthcoming)

Public Scholarship

‘James Cook and Adam Smith,’ British Library Untold Lives Blog. (2018) https://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2018/08/james-cook-and-adam-smith.html

‘James Cook and Benjamin Franklin,’ British Library Untold Lives Blog. (2018) https://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2018/07/james-cook-and-benjamin-franklin.html

A series of twenty-four essays on nineteenth-century works of art and architecture designed for A-Level History of Art students (2010-2013): https://smarthistory.org/author/benpollitt/


‘Dazzling Splendour: Alterity and Object in John Webber’s Images of Tonga,’ Doctoral Research Network Summer Symposium, Paul Mellon Centre for the Study of British Art, May 2019

The Lives and Afterlives of John Webber’s Images of the Pacific (1776-1784): Pictures as Performances of Cross-Cultural Exchange,’ Caird Library Research Seminar, National Maritime Museum, April 2019

‘Troubled Screenings – Landscape Views from James Cook’s Last Voyage and the Right to Look,’ Past Imperfect: Landscape and Confinement, UCL, January 2019

‘Resolution and Discovery in Ship Cove, Nootka Sound,’ Discussing Landscape with Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon Centre for the Study of British Art, January 2019

‘Lost and Forgotten – The Story of the First Cook Monument,’ Memory and Exploration Conference, National Maritime Museum, September 2018

‘The Other Side of Silence: the Rhetoric of the Sublime in John Webber’s Shooting Sea-Horses (1784),’ Octagon Friday Forum: Noise, Institute of Advanced Studies, UCL, June 2019

‘Mirrors, Masks and Animal Parts in John Webber’s Images from Cook’s Third Voyage,’ History of Art PhD Symposium, UCL, June 2018

‘Meetings on the Beach: the Art of John Webber,’ in Art on the Move – A Conference on Mobility in the Long Nineteenth Century, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, January 2018

‘The Representation and Interpretation of James Cook’s Voyages in the 19th and 20th Centuries,’ an invited presentation to staff at the British Library, October 2018

‘Contending Genealogies in the Collection and Display of Cook-Related Akua Hulu Manu in the Long Nineteenth Century,’ The Material Culture of Exploration and Academic Travel, 1700-1900, Göttingen University, Göttingen, July 2017


2019-20 Course Tutor: HART0031 History of the Category “Art”

2019-20  Course Tutor: HART0012 Art in London: 1600-1850

2018-19  Course Tutor: HART0014 Art in London: 1600-1850

2018-19 Teaching Assistant: HART0031 History of the Category “Art”

2017-18 Teaching Assistant: HART2001 History of the Category “Art”

2016-17 Teaching Assistant: HART1001 History of Art and its Objects – the Core Course