View to Seaward from Montreal Island
The frame is split between a rocky shore bordering an icy sea and an expanse of gray sky, with clouds scudding low on the horizon. Five people sit around a pot on an outcropping of rock to the far left: One appears to be a woman, another is reclining on his/her side facing away from us, and one is sitting and looking almost at the viewer. Walking towards this group is a man in a tall hat, carrying a case—perhaps an artist, either Back himself (thus a self-portrait) or E.N. Kendall, an artist who accompanied Back on another trip.
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).
E.N. Kendall, an artist who accompanied George Back on his expedition, may be one of the persons depicted in the above image.
Montreal Island is located on the northern coast of Nunavut, Canada.
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)
Another instance of meta-imagery in Sir George Back's work, View to Seaward from Montreal Island illustrates a quiet moment in the expedition and records without any great aesthetic flair both the landscape of the Canadian Arctic and the variety of people involved in the expeditions.
British. Landscape. Exploration. Arctic.
In "The Rock Record and Romantic Narratives of the Earth," Noah Heringman writes:
The rocky landforms of Romantic poetry . . . famously resist reading, generating images that articulate the otherness of the physical through the literal and metaphorical opacity of rock. This aesthetic response to the materiality of rocks and landforms is, however, inseparable from the emerging economic category of natural resources. … [Shelley's] model of an ‘infinite mine,’ with its latent natural history, generates what might be called a historiography of the earth. (53)In keeping with these observations, George Back's often picturesque and/or sublime diction is mitigated, or made more complex, by his sharp geological observation, which both buttresses his validity as an experienced explorer and offers data for future economic exploitation by his mother country. In the case of this image, it is not merely the diction that subverts the picturesque or sublime, but the scene itself in its unimpressive view and calm, didactic tone. Indeed, breaking from his usually embellished descriptions, Back notes:
The coast here was much lower and shelving than the precipitous and bold one we had left; but we observed the same naked and round-backed rocks as at Point Beaufort; differing, however, in color, the latter being composed almost entirely of light flesh-tinted feldspar and splintery quartz, whilst these consisted wholly of a dark gray feldspar with minute granular quartz, and perhaps hornblende. Among the debris on the beach, it was not a little surprising to find fragments of limestone, though no rocks of that formation had yet been passed. (Narrative 398)
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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---. 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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---. “The Rock Record and Romantic Narratives of the Earth.” Heringman 53-85.
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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.