painter and draughtsman, was born on 6 October 1751 in London, second son of Abraham Webber (Wéber, 1715-80), a sculptor and native of Berne, Switzerland, and his wife Mary Quant, a Londoner. At the age of six, John was sent to Berne to be educated by his aunt, Rosina Ester Wéber. Ten years later, in 1767, he was apprenticed to the Swiss landscape artist and engraver Johan Ludwig Aberli (1723-86) for three years. Then Webber left Berne for Paris to study at the Académie Royale and with the draughtsman and engraver Jean-Georges Wille (1715-1808), an influential teacher and a champion of plein air drawing. Webber’s earliest surviving drawings derive from sketching tours made with Wille on the outskirts of Paris.
In 1775 Webber returned to his native London to study at the Royal Academy while working as an interior decorator. The first public exhibition of his painting was at the Academy in spring 1776 when he showed Portrait of an Artist (a portrait of his brother, the sculptor Henry Webber) and 'Two views of the environs of Paris’. These aroused the interest of Daniel Carl Solander (1733-1782), librarian to Sir Joseph Banks and Banks’s companion on Captain Cook’s first Pacific voyage (1768-71). Solander suggested Webber to the British Admiralty as accompanying artist-draughtsman on Cook’s third voyage, which left England on 12 July 1776. The primary tasks of the voyage were to return the Tahitian Omai to his native island and to explore the possibility of a northwest passage along the North American continent. Webber’s appointment required that he should make drawings and paintings of such places in the countries visited as to 'give a more perfect idea thereof than can be formed by written description’, as well as recording 'other objects and things as may fall within the compass of his abilities’.
The Resolution sailed via the Cape of Good Hope, visiting Van Diemen’s Land, New Zealand and several Pacific Islands before striking out for north-west America and Alaska, and Webber drew landscape views and people of different lands and climates, coastal views, ethnographic objects, plants and animals. His oeuvre from the voyage was the most comprehensive record of sights in the Pacific region ever produced. Webber excelled in watercolours, wash, pencil and chalk drawings, but he also produced a number of oil paintings during the voyage. He submitted the finished works, about 200 in number, to the Admiralty on his return to London in 1780. From these the motifs for the illustrations of the official account of Cook’s third voyage were chosen.
From autumn 1780 until summer 1784 Webber redrew many of his drawings from the voyage and supervised the engravers and printers, while also working on a second contract for the Admiralty, who commissioned a number of finished paintings of noteworthy scenes and landscape views from the voyage. From 1784 until his death he exhibited drawings and paintings of third voyage subjects at the Royal Academy; in 1785 he collaborated with Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg on the Christmas pantomime Omai; or, a Trip around the World (Covent Garden) which, as a popularisation of Cook’s voyages, proved immensely successful.
Another outlet for Webber’s stock of Pacific imagery was a series of finely hand-coloured softground etchings, published as Views in the South Seas , of which sixteen sheets appeared between 1789 and 1792. Being mostly of a romantic character, these showed a care-free, luxurious life in the Pacific Isles. The series was so popular that it was continued after Webber’s death by the firm of J. Boydell.
Webber remained preoccupied with Pacific scenery for the rest of his life despite a successful career as a topographical artist travelling in the British Isles and Europe between 1786 and 1792. He was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1785 and a full member in 1791 on the basis of his landscape work. When he died, on 29 April 1793, he left a substantial fortune and made generous donations to his friends, including Joseph Farington and Thomas Hearne. His large collection of ethnographica from Cook’s third voyage he gave to the Library of Berne (now housed in the Historisches Museum, Berne.)
Webber was among the most travelled artists of his age. He thus was instrumental in the dissolution of the traditional concept of European landscape art. His art, which provided much interesting information from hitherto unknown quarters of the world, was considered factual and reliable and helped to pave the way for an increasing artistic realism. Webber’s illustrations remained popular and were still being used in the nineteenth century. His Australian subjects consist of four drawings of Tasmanian Aborigines and studies of a possum and a lizard drawn during Cook’s sojourn at Adventure Bay, Van Diemen’s Land (24-30 January 1777). A view of 'the S.E. part of Adventure Bay’ by Webber is recorded but untraced.