Portage in Hoarfrost River
The frame is vertically oriented and presents the viewer with an elevated perspective. A cliff on the left shadows the river, which moves down the left third of the image. Three men are pushing a canoe at the stream's edge up a steep, brushy incline or mountain. A fourth man stands halfway up this incline next to a dead tree, with a log frame on his back (presumably for carrying equipment).
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).
The Hoarfrost River
The Hoarfrost River is approximately 60 miles ENE of the town of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories.
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 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)
One of Sir George Back's most unusual landscapes, Portage in Hoarfrost River is a vertically-oriented image that depicts several men trying to drag their canoe out of the river and up an extremely steep incline. If this image is picturesque, it is only insofar as the landscape allows it to be, and while it conveys a sense of awe, there is no mystery involved. Instead, it is a thoroughly pragmatic, realistic scene of the struggle inherent to wilderness expeditions.
British. Landscape. Exploration. Arctic.
Portage in Hoarfrost River is simultaneously a pragmatic, and thus typical, depiction of the intense physical difficulty of Arctic travel in the nineteenth century, and a mildly picturesque portrayal of a variegated, carefully composed vertical landscape. It is particularly notable for this vertical orientation, which emphasizes the steepness of the hillside dropping to the descending river and further facilitates the general sense of motion. The dead tree extending from the upper portion of the hill is a classic trope of the picturesque—and yet, here it does not seem contrived. Musing rather appreciatively on the river despite the difficulties it posed to the expedition, Back observes that
The course of the river could be traced N.N.E. about three miles, in which, though there was evidently a strong current, nothing appeared to break the glassiness of the surface. It was bounded on each side by steep shelving rocks, cheerful with vegetation, and thinly clad with birth, firs, and willows. (Narrative 117)
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.
Ames, Van Meter. “John Dewey as Aesthetician.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 12.2 (1953): 145-68. Print.
Back, George. Arctic Artist: The Journal and Paintings of George Back, Midshipman with Franklin, 1819-1822. Ed. C. Stuart Houston. Buffalo: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1994. Print.
---. 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. London: 1836. Print.
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Canada Department of Mines and Technical Surveys, Geographical Branch. An Introduction to the Geography of The Canadian Arctic. Edmond Cloutier: Ottawa, 1951. Print.
Daston, Lorraine and Peter Gallison. Objectivity. New York: Zone Books, 2007. Print.
David, Robert G. The Arctic in the British Imagination. New York: Manchester UP, 2000. Print.
Dewey, John. “Experience, Nature and Art.” John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925-53. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1981. 266-95. Print.
Dewey, John. “The Practical Character of Reality.” Pragmatism: The Classic Writings. Ed. H.S. Thayer. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1982. 275-289. Print.
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Franklin, John. Narrative of a Second Expedition to the Shores of the Polar Sea, in the Years 1825, 1826, and 1827. London, 1828. Print.
Heringman, Noah, ed. Romantic Science: The Literary Forms of Natural History. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. Print. Suny Series in the Long Nineteenth Century.
---. Introduction. Heringman 1-22.
---. “The Rock Record and Romantic Narratives of the Earth.” Heringman 53-85.
Houston, C. Stuart. Introduction. Arctic Artist: The Journal and Paintings of George Back, Midshipman with Franklin, 1819-1822. By George Back. Ed. Houston. Buffalo: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1994. xiii-xxvi. Print.
Labbe, Jacqueline M. Romantic Visualities: Landscape, Gender and Romanticism. London: Macmillan, 1998. Print.
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Maclaren, I.S. “Commentary: The Aesthetics of Back’s Writing and Painting.” Arctic Artist: The Journal and Paintings of George Back, Midshipman with Franklin, 1819-1822. By George Back. Ed. C. Stuart Houston. Buffalo: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1994. 275-310. Print.
Markham, Sir Clements R. The Lands of Silence: A History of Arctic and Antarctic Exploration. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1921. Print.
Meisel, Martin. Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-century England. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983. Print.
Potter, Russell A. Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture, 1818-1875. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007. Print.
Price, Uvedale. “Essays on the Picturesque, as compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful; and on the Use of studying Pictures, for the Purpose of improving real Landscape (Vol. 1, 1810)." The Picturesque: Literary Sources and Documents. Vol. 2. Ed. Malcolm Andrews. Robertsbridge: Helm Information, 1994. 72-142. Print.
Rescher, Nicholas. Realistic Pragmatism: An Introduction to Pragmatic Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. Print.
Steele, Peter. The Man who Mapped the Arctic. Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2003. Print.
Twyman, Michael. “Haghe, Louis (1806–1885).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Web. 6 Apr. 2009.
Verner, Coolie. Explorers’ Maps of the Canadian Arctic 1818-1860. B.V. Gutsell: Toronto, 1972. Print.
Wilson, Eric. The Spiritual History of Ice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print.
Woodring, Carl. Nature into Art: Cultural Transformations in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989. Print.
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; by Captain Back, R.N., commander of the expedition. Illustrated by a map and plates. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street. MDCCCXXXVI.