Charles E. Gordon Frazer


Charles E. Gordon Frazer


South Seas, circa 1890
Oil on Canvas
42 1/2 x 84 1/2 inches
Unsigned, Marked Frazer on Verso on stretcher 

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Frazer was the son of John T. Frazer of Hampstead and studied at St. John's Wood School of Art, South Kensington and later at the Royal Academy Schools. It was after attending a lecture by the notable African explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley that he was awakened to his desire for a life of adventure. Stanley advised Frazer against exploring in Africa; the Pacific, he explained, was the new frontier for adventure and knowledge. So in June 1885, Frazer embarked for New Zealand determined to become a topographical painter.

Over the next two years he travelled extensively throughout Australasia, the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and New Guinea. It was during his second visit to the Island of Tanna in the New Hebrides that he witnessed the depicted ritual. Frazer had proceeded to the village of Ianekahi and then penetrated further into the dense jungle interior. He was guided by a group of coastal villagers who inadvertently led Frazer into the midst of another tribe's feasting and celebrations following a battle, Frazer hid himself in the long vegetation and observed the spectacle that unfolded.

He later recorded:
"After several excited orations the festival commenced. The procession was slowly carrying in their victims on poles. Two victims I saw, but I was told there were more. Howls and wailings continually rose from the bush, these came from the women who were moaning over the recovered slain of their own tribe. Every now and again a man stood astride of the corpse and uttered piercing yells to frighten the evil spirits away.

At length all the men sat down, two men standing in the centre with clubs and a procession is formed midst savage chants. Then the human captives are carried round suspended from poles while the details relating to their capture are excitedly elaborated. Madly and frantically the savages dance, while they defame and disgrace by gesture and voice their helpless captives, who afterwards are dragged to the fires to form the nucleus of a prolonged feast." At this point Frazer slipped away to safety.

Following his visit to Tanna, Frazer's continued to travel, he visited South America and was present at the bombardment of Rio de Janeiro in 1893-4. His final journey took him to Siam (Thailand) where he was commissioned to prepare a series of portraits of the royal family. It was there that he contracted blackwater fever and died in 1899, aged only 36.

The ceremony that Frazer has depicted is of a type known as Niel, and can be localised to the precise area on Tanna that he claimed by his depiction of giant yams that only grow in that part of island. Since only 28 lineages on Tanna had the right to consume human flesh, such ceremonies must have been comparatively rare. After Frazer had completed the painting he was evidently aware that he had produced a masterpiece. Then as now, the eating of human flesh provoked an exotic frisson.

The first exhibition of Cannibal Feast in Melbourne in 1891 caused great attention and controversy, Melbourne's periodical 'Table Talk' recorded: "Mr Gordon Frazer's 'Cannibal Feast in the Island of Tanna' is one of the greatest attractions in the Gallery. It is evident the artist has witnessed the scene he depicts, and all the horrible details are reproduced with startling fidelity." The Melbourne Herald also recorded that: "The exhibition was visited this morning by Mr H. M. Stanley...and the artist himself. Mr Stanley seemed greatly impressed with the picture which doubtless recalled to mind some stirring incidents of scenes through which he has passed during his explorations of Africa."

When exhibiting the work for the first time in England at Liverpool, it again attracted much attention, so much so that Frazer was requested to present a paper on the subject in which he gave an account of his journey and the subject, he also stated: "What I have tried to illustrate in the picture I saw with my own eyes at the moment of our departure and have faithfully reproduced every detail."

Charles Gordon Frazer was the first European artist to penetrate the wild interior of Tanna and the only (surviving) white man ever to witness a cannibal ceremony. His extraordinary masterpiece is surely one of the most important anthropological paintings of the nineteenth century.

Biography taken from