Saturday, 28 July 2012

Art from the arctic: the victorian illustrations

All along the 19th century, under Queen Victoria, the british lived intensely an arctic seas adventure, searching the Pole by northeast and, by northwest, a passage from the North Atlantic to the Pacific ocean through the Bering strait.

Some beautiful works of art are its best testimony.


Great Britain entered the Age of Ice in 1818, under William IV (The Sailor King), and over the next 100 years the Royal Navy dispatched more than 20 arctic expeditions - either by sea, utilizing ships, or over land, using sledges, canoes, and small boats.

On the way to the Weddell Sea,
James Weddell, A voyage towards the South Pole, 1825.

The Advance and Rescue entering Lancaster Sound,
Elisha Kent Kane, The U.S. Grinnell Expedition, 1854.

Wonderful tales were published of courage, heroism, sacrifice but also serious cientific research - geographic mapping, new animal species and plants, the anthroplogical discovery of the inuit populations...

“Snow Cottages of the Boothians”,
John Ross, Narrative of a Second Voyage, 1835.

All this was illustrated with some magnificent beautiful drawings and paintings by artist sailors, as never before had been done. A great part of the fascination felt by the public was induced by those pictures, published by popular periodicals such as the Quarterly Review, the Edinburgh Review, the Examiner, the Illustrated London News, the Times, and News of the World.

A passage through the ice
John Ross, A Voyage of Discovery, 1819.

Frozen in at Northumberland Sound, under the light of a paraselene
Edward Belcher, The Last of the Arctic Voyages, 1855.

Many of the naval officers were accomplished artists, and so the narratives tended to be well illustrated, often with color plates, and readers were treated to glorious images of icebergs, Inuit seal-hunters, ships beset by floes or frozen into winter harbors, snow houses, walruses, and maps.

Edward Belcher's Arctic Exploring Expedition
Illustrated London News, 1852

“The Dolphin squeezed by Ice”
John Franklin´s Narrative of a Second Expedition, 1828.

Men such as John Barrow, John Franklin, John and James Clark Ross, Robert McClure, John Rae, Edward Parry, William Scoresby, Edward Belcher, were widely admired by people of all classes and received public honours.

HMS Hecla in Baffin Bay
William Edward Parry,Journal of a Voyage, 1821.

Repairing the Esk at Spitsbergen,
William Scoresby, An Account of the Arctic Regions, 1820.

The ice romance culminated in the disappearance of the Franklin expedition. Sent out on yet another search for the Northwest Passage in 1845, it failed to return, and after a three-year absence, the first search expeditions were sent out.


Only eleven years, and thirty-six search expeditions later, the sad fate of Franklin and his men would be fully revealed. Captured by the freezing ice desert, they all died along a desperate escape to the south.

The graves of three of Franklin’s crewmen on Beechey Island,
Elisha Kent Kane, The U.S. Grinnell Expedition, 1854

In the process of the search, the route of the Northwest Passage was found, and the remainder of the Arctic coast and much of the archipelago was explored and mapped.

The “Smoking Cliffs’ of Franklin Bay,
Robert McClure, The Discovery of the North-west Passage by H.M.S. Investigator, 1856.

Taking a sextant reading
George Back, Narrative of an Expedition in H.M.S. Terror, 1838

Finally, ten official narratives were published, as well as several unofficial accounts, all lavishly illustrated, and the public could now encounter the Arctic vicariously, imagining what it would be like to spend a winter in a place where the sun did not shine, or live for months under 40º below zero.

Visiting a remarkable iceberg
John Ross, A Voyage of Discovery, 1819.

Winter dress of officers and men,
Letters written during the Late Voyage of Discovery, 1821.

The 19th century Artic Seas adventures under the reign of Queen Victoria also played an important role in the reborn mythical search for Ultima Thule. Probably never else in History had seeking exploration and adventure in remote lands such a wide appeal and fascination. That's the spirit, here ...

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An excellent exhibition of many of those pictures was displayed at Linda Hall Library, Kansas City, in 2010. Most of the images posted here come from its catalogue book, Ice, a Victorian Romance.