Crossing Lake Aylmer (3hs. a.m.)
This image portrays an icescape with distant mountains. The Arctic sun is low on the horizon, and smoke-like clouds extend in a widening mass from the far right of the image to the upper left corner. A long line of men with dogsleds attempt to go around a crevasse in the ice that extends from the lower right to the upper left. Two men wait by a sled (packed with a chest, kettle, basket, and blanket), one with his head in his hands. There is a sizeable hole in the ice to their immediate right.
Copyright 2009, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Thordarson T 183
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In his book, Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture, 1818-1875 (2007), Russell A. Potter writes: "Beginning with the Buchan expedition to the North Pole in 1818 (on which then Lieutenant John Franklin served as second officer), nearly every expedition licensed the sketches of its artistically inclined officers to panorama exhibitors.” This was partially a by-product of the fact that “for each major expedition” that the Admiralty launched, “an official representation had to be provided, not just textually but also visually”—that is, the narrative examined here. Meanwhile, panoramas (an “all-encompassing” visual technology for which Robert Barker first received his patent in 1796) were “almost exactly coeval with [the] public fascination with the North” (Potter 5-7). Indeed, Potter contends that the Arctic was “the most ‘sublime and awful’ spectacle of that already spectacular era,” which fact was emphasized by the “60 Arctic shows—including 22 moving panoramas, 3 fixed panoramas, 12 lantern expeditions, 4 mechanical automata theaters, and 4 exhibitions of “Esquimaux” or Arctic natives” between 1818 and 1883” (12).
The accuracy of this superlative is debatable, especially given the strong interest in the Alps during the same time period and the lack of information about how Back’s images (among other Arctic travelogues) were received. However, it is clear that there was intense interest in the Arctic as artistic—and, particularly, exotic—subject even beyond the many panoramas: for example, Caspar David Friedrich’s lost painting, Wrecked Ship off the Coast of Greenland under a May Moon (1822), was sold to Empress Catherine of Russia. Later, Friedrich painted his wildly popular Sea of Ice (1823), in which a “heaped-up pyramid of ice-slabs, jaggedly enjambed by the pressure of the floes, tilt[s] dangerously to the left of the field of view. It is only after tracing the outline of this icy mass that the viewer notices the stern of a sailing-ship off to the right, its masts carried away and crushed like toothpicks under the looming ridge of ice” (Potter 58). Finally, William Westall was another artist who helped create a particularly romanticized vision of the Arctic, and Martin Meisel notes that “nautical melodramas” were highly popular as plays during this time (197).
Founding of the Society of Painters in Water-Colours (1804)
With the formation only in 1804 of the Society of Painters in Water-Colours, this medium of painting was not commonly thought of in the years of Back’s youth as a professional art. But at the close of the 19th century the transition began to occur from topographical draughtsmanship, which the academies taught military students, to picturesque renditions of nature. (Maclaren 293)Founding of the Royal Geographic Society (1830)
The Royal Geographic Society (RGS) was established in 1830. It "increasingly took responsibility for both promoting polar research and publishing the results"; furthermore, "one of the first expeditions the Society supported was that of Sir George Back to the Canadian Arctic in 1832” (David 63-6). The RGS also produced the Proceedings Journal and then the Geographical Journal in order to record expeditions, provide illustrations, and provide information for new explorers, as well as to provide interim reports on those expeditions (David 63-6).
Lake Aylmer is situated approximately thirty miles from the border of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, and approximately 150 miles northeast of the town of Yellowknife.
Sir George Back variously painted or drew his images while on his expeditions, depending on the weather; in very cold temperatures his paints would freeze, so they were frequently rendered useless. These originals appear to be scattered among various private collections.
This particular image was printed for Back's Narrative of the arctic land expedition to the mouth of the Great Fish River and along the shores of the Arctic Ocean, in the years 1833, 1834, and 1835 (1836). Other notable polar expedition narratives published during this immediate period include:
By Sir George Back: Narrative of an expedition in H. M. S. Terror, undertaken with a view to geographical discovery on the Arctic shores, in the years 1836-7 (1838)
By Sir John Franklin: Narrative of a journey to the shores of the Polar Sea, in the years 1819-20-21-22 (1824)
By Sir John Ross: A voyage of discovery, made under the order of the Admiralty, in His Majesty’s ships Isabella and Alexander, for the purpose of exploring Baffin’s Bay, and inquiring into the probability of a North-west Passage (1819); and Narrative of a second voyage in search of a north-west passage, and of a residence in the Arctic regions during the years 1829, 1830, 1831, 1832, 1833. By Sir John Ross ... Including the reports of ... James Clark Ross ... and the discovery of the northern magnetic pole (1835)
By Sir William Edward Parry: Journal of a voyage for the discovery of a north-west passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific; performed in the years, 1819-20, in His Majesty’s ships Hecla and Griper, under the orders of William Edward Parry (1821); Journal of a second voyage for the discovery of a northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific; performed in the years 1821-22-23, in His Majesty's ships Fury and Hecla, under the orders of Captain William Edward Parry (1824); and Journal of a third voyage for the discovery of a northwest passage, from the Atlantic to the Pacific: performed in the years 1824-25, in His Majesty's ships Hecla and Fury, under the orders of Captain William E. Parry (1826)
A train of men and sleds navigate an icy crevasse in Lake Aylmer, in the middle of the Arctic night. Sir George Back's depiction of this scene realistically though artistically conveys the trials endured by explorers of the time period, as well as the starkly "other" landscape that the Arctic represented.
British. Landscape. Exploration. Arctic.
In his book, The Arctic in the British Imagination (2000), Robert G. David writes:
In contrast to [the] art of the familiar, Arctic art depicted an ‘otherness’ in which dissimilarities outweighed similarities . . . and the condition of the people was more akin to prehistory than pre-industry. In depicting wild, untamed scenes few concessions were made to convention. (29-30)Defying convention in the way David describes, Crossing Lake Aylmer evades strict categorization as picturesque, sublime or true-to-nature. Instead, the image includes elements from all three genres: the human figures give scale and anthropic "interest," and our viewpoint is slightly elevated; the lowering clouds and jagged crevasse offer mute, awful presence; and yet, the nearly even split between earth and sky, the appearance of the sun, and the overall tone of quietude subverts any great sense of drama. The labour that went into this type of expedition is strongly suggested, however, by the long line of men and sleds, and particularly the pair in the foreground who appear to be resting—this is, after all, three a.m. Back writes of that day:
The 25th was dark and gloomy, but our stray Indian failed not to come in with the pemmican [food]. A fog, that had been more or less prevalent for the last fourteen hours, became rather thicker as night drew on; but . . . I started at 10pm . . . Shoes were soon perforated [by the ice], as well as the pieces of reindeer skin with the hair on which had been fastened round them as a slight protection to the feet. (Narrative 292)
Stuart C. Houston notes that:
The world’s greatest naval power and its underemployed navy after the end of the Napoleonic Wars found the continued presence of large blank areas on the world map an irresistible challenge. John Barrow, the powerful second secretary to the Admiralty, had strong backing from the newly important scientific community to renew the search for the Northwest Passage after a long wartime hiatus. (xiv)In addition to simply providing visual aids for a travel narrative, then, Back’s images must be seen as integral to the literal illustration of those “large blank areas” that Britain wanted to conquer. Expedition imagery during the Romantic period addressed other needs as well, including the translation of “otherness”—which the Arctic so easily exemplified in its comparatively uninhabited starkness—into a culturally understandable, and thus accessible, space for national expansionism and the application of identity. Furthermore, in ostensibly drawing accurate portrayals of the landscape (which Franklin frequently confirms), Back created scientific records designed to both titillate and inform the British public and scientific community.
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