A man, apparently one of the “Esquimaux,” stands in the right quarter of the frame with a club on his shoulder, looking directly at the artist/viewer. He is on a beach. Against the foggy sky in the background there are dim images of teepees (or tents) and the hulls of boats; a few men stand around a fire. A vague pool of light illumines the man. A calm sea comes into shore on the left.
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)
An unnamed “Esquimaux” is pictured.
Foggy Island Bay
Latitude and longitude indicate that Franklin led this expedition approximately 3-4 miles off the northeast coast of Alaska, passing through the appropriately-named Foggy Island Bay.
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 Sir 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)
This image is primarily remarkable for its dissimilarity to other images by Sir George Back. "Foggy Island" is partially a realistic depiction of a certain stage of Franklin's journey, in which the team was caught in fog; partially a portrait of an anonymous man (unmentioned in the narrative) who seems to be an "Esquimaux"; and partially an example of what Russell Potter calls the "Arctic Sublime."
British. Landscape. Exploration. Arctic.
More a portrait than anything else, “Foggy Island” defeats the picturesque convention of variation via the foggy atmosphere and plain setting, instead suggesting the sublime in the unknowability of the landscape—an effect emphasized by the obscurity of the fog. It is also another instance in which John Franklin refers directly to "The annexed sketch taken by Lieutenant Back," which, he says,
conveys a better picture of our encampment, and of the murkiness of the atmosphere, than any description of mine could do, and points out the propriety of designating this dreary place by the name of Foggy Island. As an instance of the illusion occasioned by the fog, I may mention that our hunters sallied forth, on more than one occasion, to fire at what they supposed to be deer, on the bank about one hundred yards from the tents, which, to their surprise, took wing, and proved to be cranes and geese. (Narrative 155)In this case, the "illusion" is arguably an allusion (if not directly intended, still worthy of notice) to the Romantic obsession with phantasmagoria and the uncanny effects that such phenomena and corresponding artwork had on the viewer. The deer—a large, terrestrial animal—appears to transform and take wing when it is seen in its "true" form as a group of "cranes and geese." At the same time, this observation could also be interpreted as dry and didactic, in keeping with the rest of Franklin's writing: a record, merely, of the well-known problems inherent to hunting and navigating in a thick fog. Interestingly, Franklin completely ignores the man who is arguably the subject of the engraving, a fact which is all the more remarkable given how infrequently Back made images in which the subject's gaze meets that of the viewer/artist. The pool of light around the "Esquimaux" further heightens the strangeness of an already uncanny image.
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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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.