Te Papa is the new owner of a rare panorama of Cook's Pacific voyages.

The artwork, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, is a French-made wallpaper from 1804-5, portraying scenes from Captain James Cook's Pacific voyages.

It depicts more than 23 indigenous groups from throughout the Pacific, including a Maori warrior, dancing Tahitian princesses, and a scene showing Cook's death in Hawaii in 1779.

See the artwork


The wallpaper was the inspiration behind artist Lisa Reihana's immersive video installation, in Pursuit of Venus [infected], which will be showcased as part of New Zealand's entry in the 2017 Venice Biennale.

It was bought with money from the Charles Disney Art Trust. The national museum bought the wallpaper from a rare books dealer in Sydney for $230,000.

"This is a spectacular artwork, and a fascinating record of how the Pacific was seen through European eyes over 200 years ago," Te Papa chief executive Rick Ellis, said.

"Stories of the exotic, lush Pacific and its people captivated the public in the late 1700s. This 2m high panoramic wallpaper offered the wealthy a kind of 'armchair tourism' intended to transport them to another time and place," Te Papa's curator of historical New Zealand art, Dr Rebecca Rice, said.

Dr Rice said Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique was one of the first illustrated wallpapers produced.

"It's the most ambitious transformation of the visual material from Cook's voyages into a large-scale work of art," she said.

The set contains 18 of the 20 original "drops" of wallpaper, and is 2m high by 10m wide.

The original art work was painstakingly created with hundreds of wooden blocks. Smaller details were added using stencils and hand-painting to achieve a remarkably nuanced picture.

Te Papa hopes to be able to display it by 2019, marking the 250th anniversary of Cook's arrival in the Pacific, due to the extensive conservation work required.

"Years of being in a domestic environment, with open fires, smoking and other pollutants have taken a toll," said Dr Rice.

• A full panorama of the art work can be seen on Te Papa's website.