Launching Boats Across a Reef Opposite to Mount Conybeare. And Distant View of the British Chain of Mountains.
Two groups of men drag rowboats over a rocky “reef,” which seems to be serving as a dam between one body of water (placid-looking) and another (which appears to be the sea). A strong curving line created by the reef extends from the immediate foreground towards a jagged mountain chain in the far background, referred to as the “British Chain of Mountains” in the subtitle.
Copyright 2009, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Thordarson T 1872
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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)
Mount Conybeare is a peak near the northwestern tip of Yukon Territory.
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 John Franklin's Narrative of a second expedition to the shores of the Polar Sea in the years 1825, 1826, and 1827 (1828). 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)
With its sweeping line of rock, startling juxtaposition of distant landscape with the nearer scene, and diminutive figures wrestling their boats over the "reef," this image is at once a picturesque re-visioning of a landscape and a record of exploration intended to reinforce British imperialist vision and scientific study.
Picturesque. British. Landscape. Exploration. Arctic.
I.S. Maclaren argues that:
[T]he picturesque convention . . . seems at odds with the remarkable labor being performed under trying and sometimes extreme conditions. But this is an oddity inherent in description generally, for a descriptive passage nearly always suspends the impetus of narrative, not unlike the way that an illustration complements a narrative of exploration by interrupting its impetus. Part of this disjunction in mood between the momentary landscape enthusiast’s remarks and the explorer’s ongoing account arises because the making of a ‘scene’ or ‘view’ demands a standing back from the object of observation in order to make sense of it, to endue it with meaning; in short, to identify it. (292)Notwithstanding Maclaren’s somewhat facile equation of the arresting of a scene with “description generally,” it is true that expedition imagery, especially when compared with accompanying narratives, can appear incongruently portrayed. Yet from Back’s descriptive title to the elevated viewpoint and extensive near-far movement, this image is clearly an "interruption" or "impetus," even as it visually describes the explorers' "ongoing" and "remarkable labor." As such, it is exemplary of Back's comprehensive aesthetic approach, which rather inconsistently sees the Arctic as both compellingly beautiful and picturesque—Back uses the word throughout his narrative—and as maddeningly difficult to traverse.
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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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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---. Introduction. Heringman 1-22.
---. “The Rock Record and Romantic Narratives of the Earth.” Heringman 53-85.
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Narrative of a second expedition to the shores of the Polar Sea in the years 1825, 1826, and 1827, by John Franklin, Captain R.N., F.R.S., &c. and commander of the expedition, including an account of the progress of a detachment to the eastward by John Richardson, M.D., F.R.S., F.L.S., &c., surgeon and naturalist to the expedition, illustrated by numerous plates and maps, published by authority of the right honourable the secretary of state for colonial affairs, London: John Murray, Albemarle-Street, 1828.