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Witnessing the Arctic

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 March 2022

Eavan O'Dochartaigh
National University of Ireland, Galway


The introductory chapter provides geographical contexts and briefly outlines both the history of the search for the Northwest Passage and the Franklin expedition. It gives an overview of the searches that ensued for the missing expedition over twelve years and emphasises the centrality of visuality and the importance of skills like drawing to shipboard life, as well as highlighting the gaps in the literature that this book will fill, in particular the neglect of rich primary-source visual material (such as on-the-spot sketches and watercolours) as a key source of information and evidence. It notes, too, the sparseness of scholarly work addressing this period of Arctic exploration history and the absence of detailed visual analyses of documentary art from the Arctic. This chapter introduces the key debates in the study of exploration literature, Victorian visuality, and historical geography. These include the gendered space of polar exploration, the imperial gaze, and theories of space and place. It looks too at how visual evidence can be seen as layers of representation, with each response departing further from the original sketch.

Visual Culture and Arctic Voyages
Personal and Public Art and Literature of the Franklin Search Expeditions
, pp. 1 - 19
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

On Saturday, 9 February 1850, an eager crowd of invited guests entered the well-known Leicester Square rotunda in London to witness an immense new circular painting (or panorama1) created by Robert Burford and Henry Selous. As they mounted the steps to the raised viewing platform, a spectacular and vivid view of icebergs emerged before them. This was Summer and Winter Views of the Polar Regions, the latest, and arguably the finest, in a series of visual entertainments that claimed to show the little-known Arctic regions visited by a recently returned British naval expedition led by James Clark Ross. For weeks, adverts and letters in the papers had noted that this visual entertainment was distinguished by being the only one to be based on an actual eyewitness source: the on-the-spot sketches of William Henry James Browne, the Irish lieutenant who had served on the expedition. Thus, its accuracy and authenticity were well established long before its completion. With no external reference points on which to rest the eye, one woman, Lady Jane Franklin, was said to have spent two hours ‘inspecting the picture’, which must have had a ‘peculiar interest’ for her, given that it was ‘near the place in which her husband and his expedition [were] supposed to be, if still alive’.2

It was almost five years since the large British naval expedition led by her husband, John Franklin (1786–1847), had disappeared into the Canadian Arctic.3 Despite a huge effort by thirty-six search, supply, and relief expeditions between 1847 and 1859, no survivors of the Franklin expedition were ever found.4 These expeditions represented a remarkable mobilisation of resources and men, funded by both the British government and private sponsors, including Jane Franklin herself and the American philanthropist and merchant Henry Grinnell; their combined endeavours kept the Arctic imaginary in the public eye throughout the 1850s.5 During those voyages, shipboard expedition members produced large amounts of visual and written material for both scientific and sentimental reasons – topographical sketches, coastal profiles, maps, and written logs were produced alongside personal portraits, illustrated periodicals, travel sketches, and private journals. Although there were no professional artists on any of the search expeditions, in pictures, and in words, the Arctic experience was sketched and painted, described, and inscribed. In the metropole, too, following the return of the first search expedition in 1849, the Arctic was being re-imagined, engraved, lithographed, painted, and published. Above all, it was now being commodified and sensationalised. The Arctic was everywhere: at printsellers and panoramas, in published narratives and lithograph folios, in the press and in the theatre. Visual Culture and Arctic Voyages investigates how these representations of the Arctic came to be, with close attention to media and contexts, moving from the ship to the city, showing how the on-board Arctic was quite different to that of the metropole, and how this re-imagined Arctic continues to resonate in the twenty-first century.

By using close analysis of visual and verbal sources, I explore the processes of transformation of the representation of the Arctic from on-board sketches through to published texts, prints, and panoramas, enabling new conclusions to be drawn about the nature of the representation of the Arctic and of the Franklin searches. On the one hand, a narrative of humour, domesticity, familiarity, and of an often-benign environment permeates the on-board record. On the other, a battleground where man was pitted against nature dominated the public narrative.6 In public archives alone, upwards of five hundred sketches, watercolours, and illustrations created by expedition members exist; many more must remain in private ownership. Over six hundred prints relating to the search appeared in published books, periodicals, and folios during the 1850s, while more than ten Arctic panoramas were exhibited in London. Other Arctic panoramas appeared in Ireland, Scotland, America, Canada, and Australia. Such pictures often created a specific visual narrative for public consumption that emphasised the laborious and difficult nature of the search amidst the ‘savage horrors’ of the polar regions.7

Although the Franklin expedition itself is not the main concern of this book, but rather the intense search that this disastrous voyage inspired, a brief introduction is necessary in order to contextualise the material.8 Since the sixteenth century, repeated efforts had been made by the nations of western Europe to find a northerly sea route for commercial purposes, either a Northeast or a Northwest Passage to Cathay, or China, that was outside Spanish or Portuguese control. The most significant of these was William Edward Parry’s voyage of 1819 to 1820 that entered Lancaster Sound in the north-west of Baffin Bay and managed to sail further west than anyone before, as far as Melville Island in Parry Channel, thereby qualifying for an award for sailing past longitude 110°W north of the Arctic Circle.9 Franklin’s expedition was dispatched in 1845 officially in order to complete the Northwest Passage.10 When no news of his ships was heard for two years, his wife, Jane Franklin (1791–1875), and other figures began to argue that search expeditions should be deployed to offer relief to the missing expedition.11 Thus began the search for the lost ships that lasted for over a decade and reached its most intensive phase in the early 1850s. Thirty of the thirty-six expeditions were maritime voyages that approached the Arctic by sea; only six were overland or coastal, travelling to the archipelago via the North American coast. The large British naval search expeditions intentionally wintered in the Arctic, using the ship as a headquarters from which to launch sledging journeys in spring that enabled the mapping of thousands of kilometres of what we now know as the Canadian Arctic archipelago in present-day Nunavut and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region.12

In the midst of numerous literary studies of polar exploration that include the nineteenth-century Arctic,13 the role of the visual has been largely overlooked.14 Much critical scholarly work that exists on the visual culture of the search period traditionally attends more to the public and published imaginings: engravings, lithographs, panoramas.15 By contrast, little research has been done on the primary visual records of the Franklin search expeditions to the Arctic – the original sketches, watercolours, and drawings. This book fills that gap by prioritising the visual culture of the Arctic during the Franklin search period, both on the ship and in the metropole, without neglecting its textual associations, including inscriptions, captions, and written narratives. In doing so, a broader and more nuanced sense of the cultural history of the Franklin search expeditions is revealed. The sharp focus on a surprisingly neglected time period is essential to do justice to the wealth of archival material that exists from the search expeditions.16 By drawing our attention to this history, a strong distinction between visual culture on board and that disseminated to the public becomes apparent. While the on-board history has been largely obscured, the metropolitan mode of Arctic representation remains dominant into the twenty-first century.

Interdisciplinary at its core – drawing particularly on art history, the study of literature, and historical geography – the research makes original contributions to knowledge in several fields: the study of nineteenth-century visual culture; travel and exploration literature; and Arctic humanities. As Richard Harding observes, in his appraisal of naval historical scholarship, shipboard life is an aspect that needs more attention; peacetime periods of navies do not attract scholarship in the way that wartime periods do.17 The Arctic search ships, engaged in a humanitarian cause, can be seen as microcosms of Victorian culture, complete with their own theatricals and illustrated periodicals. Isobel Armstrong notes the nineteenth-century fascination with seeing and observes how visual media bombarded city-dwellers.18 Allusions to visual technologies (such as the magic lantern and the panorama) permeate published Arctic narratives, showing how embedded these forms of seeing were in the Victorian period. A crucial aspect of Arctic shipboard culture was, as in the metropole, its visuality.

Victorian Visuality and Arctic Exploration

Text and picture are inseparable in the mid-nineteenth-century representation of the Arctic, creating slippage between personal and public perceptions of the region. The visuality of travel in the Victorian period needs to be attended to in conjunction with travel writing. With respect to the latter, Margaret Topping has noted the value of the ‘interrogation of images as more dynamic, and potentially contestatory, participants in the narrative’.19 As Julia Thomas points out, with regard to Victorian illustrated texts, dialogues between words and pictures generate particular stories.20 Prints and panoramas of the Arctic were further enhanced by their associated texts, informing the viewers and helping to build on the strangeness of the scene in order to convey ‘peril’ and ‘horrors’, emphasising the nature of the search for Franklin as a worthy ‘masculine’ enterprise. Remote locations (such as the Arctic) that most people were never likely to see were alluring and invoked visual curiosity.21 Kate Flint observes, ‘not being able to see with the physical eye is to call into play the powerful forces of imagination and memory’.22 Glimpses into the Arctic through engravings and lithographs encouraged people to use their own imagination and memory to expand these scenes. Although the high price of large lithographs might seem to indicate that they were seen by a select audience, such media often appeared in printsellers’ shop windows or were exhibited at their premises, meaning that they would have reached a far wider audience beyond only those who could afford to buy them.23

Although being able to draw was an expected accomplishment in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for the upper and middle classes,24 drawing was embedded in everyday life across ranks and was a normal part of shipboard life. Sketching on the spot encouraged engagement with the environment and was practised by expedition members far beyond any professional obligation. Art historian Geoff Quilley observes that a concern with the visual material from James Cook’s three voyages in the Pacific (1768–1780) has eclipsed subsequent visual representation of travel, particularly that created on nineteenth-century expeditions.25 Cook’s expeditions hired professional artists who produced several high art paintings, in contrast to the Franklin search expeditions that relied on the drawing skills of naval officers. Certainly, the rich archive of material from the Franklin search ships has been undervalued and has not benefited from any sustained critical inquiry. This is likely due to the amateur status of the artists, the varying quality of the work, and the attention that the Franklin expedition itself attracts (to the detriment of the comparatively successful search expeditions). Furthermore, work by these amateur artists is more likely to be lost, damaged, or scattered in various archives. Unlike professional artists, who used sketchbooks, many of these works are on loose pieces of paper or within travel journals, making them difficult to discover through searches of online catalogues. With limited resources and challenging environmental conditions, expedition members persisted in creating comic illustrations, travel sketches, coastal profiles, portraits, landscapes, and even theatre backdrops, telling a more complex story than the contemporary media depictions of the Arctic searches.

Small sketches, as opposed to finished paintings, were the most common visual works undertaken in the Arctic by expedition members. Refined commercial products such as prints and panoramas purported to reproduce officers’ on-the-spot sketches, thereby associating the contents of their own products with truth and authenticity.26 By examining a broad array of media, both private and public, I emphasise the significance of these panorama-painters, lithographers, and publishers in re-imagining the Arctic through convincing products. Unlike the Alps, the Arctic was relatively untrodden aesthetic territory, and work that claimed to reproduce original sketches by officers was prized for its ‘truth’, despite being reinterpreted by professional artists who had a greater aesthetic awareness and less concern with topographical accuracy. Such products of Victorian commercial culture cannot be seen as unmediated perceptions of Arctic ‘explorers’. The Arctic had, of course, been represented in paintings that depicted the British whaling industry, and, as the nineteenth century progressed, whaling ships sailed further northwards into Baffin Bay and often got trapped in the ice. In Hull particularly, where the largest whaling fleet was based, artists like John Ward (who it is thought may have been on at least one whaling voyage27) and Thomas Binks represented the natural history of the Arctic as well as the whaling ships.28 However, the focus of these works, in which whale hunting was the main interest, was different from the visual material that emanated from the Franklin searches. The latter was closely connected to the idea of new and ever-expanding horizons, whether real or imaginary, as they sailed further into the unmapped regions of the Canadian Arctic archipelago.

A recurring theme in the critical literature is nineteenth-century British explorers’ difficulty in perceiving and representing the Arctic, due to their lack of understanding and unfamiliarity with the environment.29 Much of the pictorial evidence used to support this argument is comprised of published lithographs, which, it is argued, show that explorers were too concerned with the aesthetic categories of the sublime or the picturesque to be capable of producing an accurate representation.30 However, although expedition members had an awareness of aesthetic terminology, such an aesthetic concern is not noticeably evident in the primary source material of the Franklin searches. By analysing the transformation from sketch to print and emphasising the importance of the dialogue between picture and text, I argue that it is in the prints and panoramas (products of commercial metropolitan enterprises) that a very deliberate aesthetic manipulation is evident, which intensifies the difficulty of the search.

Much of this manipulation borrowed stylistically from the sublime and the picturesque,31 aesthetic categories that changed over time, particularly during the eighteenth century when discussion of aesthetics was at its height, with publications such as William Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty (1753), John Baillie’s Essay on the Sublime (1747), and Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry (1757 and 1759). According to Burke, the sublime was that which produces delight by the depiction of pain and danger.32 In nature, the sublime caused ‘astonishment’ and found its source in obscurity, privation, vastness, infinity, difficulty, magnificence, quick transitions from light to dark, or the idea of physical pain and even the ‘angry tones of wild beasts’; indeed, such sources for the sublime were associated with the Arctic in the popular imagination.33 Absences such as ‘vacuity, darkness, solitude and silence’, which were a key part of polar imaginaries, were also productive of the sublime.34 Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement (1792) maintained that the sublime could only refer to a state of mind, that objects in nature themselves could not be sublime.35 He divided the aesthetic into the mathematical, an overwhelming of the senses by a huge natural object, and the dynamical, which is an awareness of the effect of power.36

Burke’s influential Philosophical Enquiry had polarised beauty and sublimity, leaving a middle ground that became occupied by Uvedale Price’s late eighteenth-century picturesque, which was distinguished by variety, intricacy, and roughness.37 Price believed that the picturesque was located somewhere between beauty and sublimity and could be blended with either,38 making it a versatile aesthetic. Thus, dashing waves, Gothic architecture, ruins, and hovels all had picturesque potential. Above all, the picturesque was found in ‘partial and uncertain concealment’ and in the ‘forms, the tints, and the lights and shadows of objects’. However, according to Price, if destruction was threatened, the scene acquired ‘a tincture of the sublime’.39 By the mid-nineteenth century, the picturesque aesthetic had gone through several stages, including being ridiculed in popular satire.40 These satires made fun of the practice of touring the landscape in search of the ideal viewpoint from which to observe a scene or make a picturesque sketch. Although the formal neoclassical picturesque, as popularised by William Gilpin, divided the painting into the foreground, middle ground, and distance, crucially, picturesque paintings were not expected to be accurate topographical records but to give a general idea of the landscape.41

It is important to stress that none of the expedition members in the Franklin searches were professional artists, or even dedicated draughtsmen; they had many other tasks to perform, and personal drawing was only possible when time allowed. Ultimately, although an awareness of aesthetic categories must underlie sketches by amateur artists on the Franklin searches, they were more informed by the environment than they were by the influence of high aesthetics. Members of the Franklin search expeditions who sketched and painted would have also been aware of the strong tradition of marine painting that thrived in nineteenth-century Britain. Although originally influenced by seventeenth-century Dutch marine art, many of the marine artists, like Clarkson Stanfield for example, had experience at sea, and the specialism demanded in-depth knowledge of ships, the sea, and meteorological conditions, all of which members of the Franklin search expeditions would have had. The early romantic interest in marine subject matter, including shipwreck paintings and paintings of the sea, continued during the Victorian period.42 While some of the on-board work shows the influence of the aesthetic categories (in the choice of subject matter and composition), such drawings underwent considerable transformation by other agents, who often dramatically heightened the sublime, before they reached the public eye. The representation of the nineteenth-century Arctic that we have inherited is the transformed, commercial version of the Arctic, not the version that was represented in the small, self-effacing sketches of expedition members.

Both Robert G. David and Heidi Hansson point out that the Arctic of the popular imagination is associated above all with winter.43 Hansson further discusses how, in nineteenth-century polar biographies and adventure stories, ‘the main adversary is the Arctic itself, almost always in winter’.44 A common misconception in the twenty-first century is that the Arctic is an empty place that is permanently covered in snow and ice; when the effects of climate change on the Arctic are mentioned, it is not uncommon to hear throwaway responses like ‘well, nobody lives there anyway’.45 Adriana Craciun has observed that a visual and literary focus on ice has dominated the scholarly discourse concerning the Arctic.46 Certainly, during the Franklin search period, the public image of the Arctic portrayed a space in which a key component of the Arctic narrative – ‘man’s struggle against the elements’47 – could be displayed. The imaginary of an empty Arctic has been associated specifically with (published) representations by nineteenth-century British explorers. Francis Spufford suggests that ‘when it comes to the explorers’ success or failure at traversing the landscape’, Inuit ‘did not belong in the stories of discovery and achievement’.48 For David, the ‘single-minded objective’ of the mid-century Franklin search expeditions resulted in a sudden disappearance of Indigenous people from representations in favour of subjects that depicted exploration.49

While it is true that a considerable proportion of the published pictures and texts from the search period do not show an Indigenous presence, one reason for this is that many of the large, high-profile search expeditions of the 1850s spent the majority of their time in the northern part of the Canadian archipelago (as seen in Figure 0.1), an area that did not support Indigenous populations in the mid-nineteenth century.50 Of course, prior to European incursions, there had long been a human presence in some parts of the Arctic,51 and in the mid-nineteenth century, the far north-east of Siberia on the west side of the Bering Strait was inhabited by the Chukchi and Yupik; Iñupiat and Yup’ik were present in coastal north Alaska; and Inuvialuit and Inuit were scattered over the coastal High Arctic of Canada and in Greenland.52 However, a large part of the central and northern half of the Canadian archipelago was uninhabited during the period of the Franklin searches. When ships did spend significant amounts of time near settlements, particularly in the Bering Strait region, there is ample literary and visual material in the archive attesting to a peopled Arctic. Intense interaction took place when ships wintered near Indigenous communities, and expeditions were reliant on the goodwill of residents for their hunting skills, winter clothing, and geographical knowledge, as well as social, and sometimes sexual, interaction. There are also published versions of this peopled Arctic. For example, a large portion of the narrative Ten Months among the Tents of the Tuski (1853) focuses on the expedition’s interactions with Chukchi individuals.53 As Efram Sera-Shriar has observed, reliable travel narratives contained substantial evidence that Indigenous knowledge and social interaction were valued,54 even if this value was not fully acknowledged.

Figure 0.1 Map of the Arctic showing winter quarters of the maritime search expeditions and Indigenous communities in areas closest to expedition routes and winter quarters, 1848–59.

Map by author.

The archival, and indeed some of the published material, shows evidence that complicates the notion of Mary Louise Pratt’s imperial gaze. This gaze sees the landscape in scientific, objective terms, observed by ‘the European male subject of European landscape discourse – he whose imperial eyes passively look out and possess’.55 But the relationship of the search expedition members to the Arctic and its people was far more complex than that; their place-making behaviours as well as their interpersonal relationships with Indigenous people suggest a multifaceted gaze, which supports Majid Yar’s contention that the association of the gaze with power overlooks other aspects of vision such as the ‘hermeneutic, emotional, communicative’ possibilities.56

Although the Arctic was considered to be an environment in which man’s nobility was put to the ‘ultimate test’,57 the establishment of winter quarters in the ice meant that life became less about exploration and travel, and more about home-making. Arctic winters in particular became associated with specific activities – masked balls, pantomimes, ice-sculpting, evening classes – thus creating a sense of history, identity, and community, resulting in a feeling of belonging and home.58 Expedition members individually engaged in place-making behaviours, such as informal naming of topographical features,59 social interaction, and engagement with the environment; the primary sources show significant topophilia, or attachment to place.60 Indeed, based on John Agnew’s triadic definition of place, the Arctic took on all the attributes of place for overwintering expedition members.61 These visitors to the Arctic, who ceased to move through a space, began to behave a little more like inhabitants and less like Pratt’s British explorer, or ‘monarch-of-all-I-survey’, in Africa.62 Neither were overwintering expedition members tourists in search of the picturesque, moving through a landscape; they were not perpetually apprehending the sublime that travellers first began to experience as they crossed the Alps from the late seventeenth century. They were living and working, embedded in the environment and forming habits of familiarity through daily routine. Both the sublime and the picturesque are dependent on novelty and on the visibility of new prospects. In contrast, the overwintering maritime expeditions were immobile for much of the year, and some expedition members made repeated voyages to the Arctic, even returning to the same places several times.

The imagined geography of the Arctic, as a vast empty space where man pits himself against a hostile environment, has been created and maintained by public visual representations and texts.63 The idea of North is projected as a masculine gendered zone.64 Nineteenth-century Arctic exploration is typically represented in terms of hardship, pain, and suffering; titles of books such as Arctic Hell-Ship (2007) emphasise this aspect for potential readers.65 Indeed, very little has been written about the positive aspects of polar exploration.66 However, close examination of on-board visual and written records yields many positive responses to the Arctic and reveals an expectation of future nostalgia for the Arctic among members of search vessels, even those who participated in particularly gruelling expeditions,67 reminding us that, as Lawrence A. Palinkas and Peter Suedfeld note, ‘positive and negative reactions’ to polar conditions are not mutually exclusive.68 This book reveals overlooked details in the archive – a smiling face in an ostensibly unpleasant situation, a revealing phrase in a manuscript – that complicate the notion of a masculine space of peril and danger and highlight a different way of imagining the Arctic. According to the president of the Royal Geographical Society in the late 1850s, Roderick Murchison, the searches for Franklin had proven to be ‘in times of peace … the best school for testing, by the severest trials, the skill and endurance of many a brave seaman’.69 In fact, these trials of masculinity also involved ‘unmasculine’ chores like doing the laundry and cooking, as well as the enthusiastically pursued pastimes of dress-making and cross-dressing for on-board theatre performances.70

When we explore the archives behind the attractive public pictures, a far more complex visual matrix is observed than the immense icebergs and ships in jeopardy that dominate the public representations. Even today, nineteenth-century prints lavishly illustrate twenty-first-century texts and continue to inform our ways of thinking about the Arctic. As Julie F. Codell points out, visual culture is often marginalised, ‘or worse, is used to illustrate’ history, colonialism, and historical events.71

The lithograph Critical Position of H.M.S. Investigator (Figure 0.2), ‘the most arresting of all polar images’,72 is frequently presented and consumed as a factual artefact (showing that the aura of authenticity still persists), yet the scene of peril is the work of a London-based lithographer.73 Despite this, Critical Position of H.M.S. Investigator has endured to become the visual catchphrase of all expeditions that searched the Arctic in the mid-nineteenth century.74 Although contemporary reviewers of prints were at pains to point out that certain published ‘sketches’ were ‘facsimiles’ of those by officers, their very need to state this fact betrays a distrust of popular visual culture as a source of information; their concern with the ‘truth’, ‘accuracy’, and ‘reality’ of representations paradoxically shows their awareness of the power of the visual as a tool of deception.

Figure 0.2 Samuel Gurney Cresswell, Critical Position of H.M.S. Investigator on the North Coast of Baring Island, August 20th 1851, 1854. Lithograph, 44.3 × 61.2 cm.

Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Visual Culture and Arctic Voyages is led by the visual material itself, acknowledging the immediacy, availability, and proliferation of images in the Victorian period. My analysis of sketches, illustrated periodicals, published texts, panoramas, and prints blends methodologies from the disciplines and fields of publishing and book history, the study of literature, art history, visual studies, historical geography, the history of science, and cultural anthropology. In particular, the interpretative approach of cultural history, which acknowledges the creativity and subjectivity of the human mind while also embracing a holistic view identifying overall structures or patterns,75 informs the research methodology. Close reading, cultural analysis, and semiotic analysis all have a role to play in the interpretation of the material. In common with Susan Close, who considers photography to be a ‘social practice’,76 visual culture on the Franklin search expeditions can be thought of as inherently social, not only engaging with subjects but connecting practitioners to each other through their visual work.

Art historical critical skills that account for the materiality of images as objects and attention to subject matter and social and art historical contexts are brought to bear on a very broad range of visual media encompassed by visual culture studies. The concept of visuality ‘attempts to grasp the visual aspects of the relationality and performativity of human life (or of subjects) in societies and cultures’.77 Critically examining the visual archive means taking into account the role of audiences, contexts of production, and display.78 Visiting archives and libraries enabled the discovery of uncatalogued pictures, the examination of detail, the observation of condition, close-up photography, and the recording of core information.79 Such depth of observation and recording allows critical engagement with the representations and an appreciation of the richness of the material.

Over the course of my research, it became apparent that, while some critical scholarship uses pictures from the Franklin searches to illustrate publications, there is little formal attempt to understand and analyse these pictures, to bring any depth and meaning to their contents. Popular illustrated histories use pictures to extend their text, decorate, and give visual pleasure.80 This book is informed by the archival nature of the research, beginning with the pictures and texts themselves, rather than ‘starting from a series of observations and assumptions imposed on a body of material’.81 Like photographs, sketches and their captions or associated texts can be seen as ‘visual incisions through time and space’,82 that ‘spring leaks’ on interrogation of their ‘distinctions and points of fracture’.83 Their interaction often reveals a discord between the written and the visual. Historical geographer Felix Driver stresses that published narratives of exploration merely represent the ultimate stage in a chain of stages.84 While this project includes published exploration narratives in its dataset, their analysis is embedded in an awareness of the archival sources and contexts that led to their creation. Driver notes that such published texts cannot be seen as single products of imperialism, but that they would be better viewed as ‘articulations of practices’,85 having gone through many stages. The same is true of published prints, which have gone through a similar process of alteration and are preceded by layers of archival material. Furthermore, as Bernard Smith explains, we can think of ‘three principal means by which drawings may be said to represent, we might call them inventive drawing, illustrative drawing and documentary drawing’. They are based respectively on images from the mind, things that are described in words, and ‘things that the draughtsman perceives out there in the world’. These categories are not well defined, and he invites us to think of all three means as ‘potential components of perception’.86

The importance of the visual material to this book necessitates an explanation of the hierarchy of descriptors that will be used throughout. Firstly, the term picture is a general (primary) term for all two-dimensional representations (including prints, paintings, sketches, drawings, photographs, and panoramas). As Leila Koivunen suggests, picture can be more useful than image as it distinguishes the material from literary images.87 Sketches are generally rough drawings, made quickly in ink or pencil; the term drawing implies a more finished sketch. The term illustration can be used when a picture was created specifically to complement printed text and is influenced by that text. A print is ‘formed by transfer from one surface or source to another. Usually created with ink(s) and produced in multiple impressions.’88 Relief printing, such as woodcuts, is the oldest known technique, whereby non-printing surfaces are cut away, leaving raised surfaces to hold the ink. The ink is then transferred to paper through pressure.89 Intaglio methods, like engraving, etching, and mezzotint, involve incising a plate, the recessed grooves of which hold the ink. Much greater pressure is then used to transfer the ink to paper.90 Planographic or surface printing is the most recent technique and employs a flat printing surface. Lithography is the original planographic technique, whereby the picture is ‘printed from a stone or metal surface on the principle of antipathy between grease and water’.91 The term printer includes engravers and lithographers who reproduced pictures for publication. The nineteenth century saw the rise of many new and evolving forms of visual entertainment. The original panorama was a large 360-degree painting that encircled the viewer and, by eliminating external reference points, immersed the viewer in the scene. The moving panorama consisted of a long canvas that was unrolled past an audience, often accompanied by music. The nineteenth-century diorama was a ‘large, partially translucent scenic painting, which by means of varied illumination simulated such effects as sunrise, changing weather, etc.’.92 A tableau was an arranged scene of objects or people, and a magic lantern was a type of image projector that became increasingly popular in the mid-nineteenth century.

Central to this book is a conviction that we cannot interrogate the literary or visual material, much of which concerns the environment, without acknowledging the complex and varied physical geography of the regions in which the Franklin search expeditions found themselves. A considerable portion of the archival material I will discuss was produced in the Arctic – a place that differed vastly from metropolitan production contexts. To this end, underlying the research is a knowledge of nineteenth-century and modern maps and an attentiveness to regional climatic and meteorological variation.

Geographical and Historical Background

The Arctic region is an immense area not easily delineated and with complex connections to lower latitudes.93 The Arctic Circle, at a latitude of approximately 66° North, is often defined as the southern boundary of the Arctic (Figure 0.1).94 This marks the latitude at which the sun remains above the horizon at the summer solstice and below the horizon at the winter solstice. Other definitions use the zone of continuous permafrost on land and the extent of sea-ice95 or refer to the Arctic as the region north of the +10°C July isotherm (a line that roughly equates to the northern treeline and includes areas south of the Arctic Circle), where the average temperature does not exceed +10°C in July.

It is vital to understand that the Arctic is not one uniform region; the environment is varied and the conditions local. For example, in the 1950s, Inuit families from Inukjuak, Nunavik (northern Québec) that were forcibly relocated almost 2,000 kilometres north to Resolute Bay (in the region where so many of the search expeditions wintered) found ‘their traditional knowledge and hunting techniques were out of place’ and the ‘total darkness from November to February was unfamiliar and disabling’.96 Tellingly, one of the Inuktitut names for Resolute, Qausuittuq, translates as ‘the place with no dawn’.97 It is worth reiterating that many of the large search expeditions wintered to the north of Parry Channel, in areas that Inuit themselves did not inhabit.98 The Canadian Arctic archipelago of Nunavut and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region reduces in elevation from east to west, from a height of over 1,500 metres on Devon and Baffin Islands to average elevations of 300 metres on Banks Island in the west. Expeditions that entered via the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Strait encountered the mountainous region of the Chukchi Peninsula in north-east Siberia, the coastal plain of the Alaskan Arctic, and the west side of the archipelago, including low plains and plateaus.99 In the mid-nineteenth century, the national and provincial borders of the Arctic that we are familiar with today largely did not exist. Alaska was part of Russian America, and the remainder of the northern part of the continent was known as British North America. Much of the archipelago was unknown to Europeans. The north and west of the present-day Canadian mainland were dominated by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which held a fur-trading monopoly controlled from London.100 The Province of Canada was the largest colony in British North America, where the settlements of Ottawa, York, Québec, and Montréal were located.101

Franklin was no stranger to expeditions in the Arctic, having participated in, or led, three expeditions between 1818 and 1827. For the 1845 expedition, his ships had been provisioned for a voyage of three years, and it was not until 1848 that the first major maritime expedition was sent by the Admiralty to search for the missing vessels. By August 1850, eleven ships were in the region of Lancaster Sound when Franklin’s first winter quarters, including the graves of three seamen who had died from tuberculosis and pneumonia, were found on Beechey Island.102 John Rae returned from an overland expedition in 1854 with evidence of the Franklin expedition’s fate – in the form of ‘relics’ and Inuit accounts that suggested the starving crew had resorted to cannibalism.103 The Admiralty ceased its search and turned its attention to the Crimean War (1853–6), but there was a desire among other agents, such as Jane Franklin, who campaigned for continued searches, to be provided with more evidence for what exactly had happened. Hence small-scale searches continued to be carried out until Francis McClintock returned in 1859 with additional first-hand evidence including objects, a written note, and reports of skeletons near King William Island.104 By this stage, the main elements of what had happened were known. As Loomis succinctly notes: ‘Franklin had died early in the expedition; his ships had been either crushed by the ice or deserted by their crews; the men had died one by one as they tried to walk south to the Canadian mainland.’105

By far the largest and longest searches were the British naval maritime search expeditions. Between 1848 and 1852, six of these were dispatched, with the last expedition to return to Britain doing so in 1855 (see Table 1).106 Additional smaller naval expeditions served as supply and relief vessels to the main search expeditions, and several private expeditions, funded or inspired by Jane Franklin, were also involved. Indeed, Behrisch Elce credits the tireless letter-writing campaign of Jane Franklin with the perseverance of the search and argues that her influence led to the ‘opening up of one of the world’s most mysterious places’.107

All of the six large naval search expeditions spent a minimum of one winter in the Arctic; the Plover spent six years in the Bering Strait region, with some of her crew volunteering to remain aboard for that entire length of time.108 Other expedition members volunteered to return on subsequent voyages, increasing their familiarity with the region and developing the particular culture of Arctic maritime expeditions. The search ships aimed to enter the archipelago in summer and find a sheltered bay in which to winter over. As the sea iced over, preparations were made by roofing the top deck with sailcloth, building insulating snow walls, and lighting the stoves. The three darkest months were from November to February, but even then, the polar twilight made it possible to read a book outside at noon on the shortest day of the year. During the spring, exploratory sledge journeys were undertaken that could cover hundreds of miles over the ice. If returning to Britain, ships aimed to exit the archipelago in late summer, when the ice broke up, and could arrive back to the metropole by autumn, when the press announced their return.

Table 1 Details of the British naval maritime expeditions that searched for Franklin. Other naval expeditions functioned as supply and rescue endeavours to these expeditions already in the Arctic.

YearExpedition LeaderShips (In Command)Approach
1848–9James Clark Ross
  • Enterprise (James Clark Ross)

  • Investigator (Edward Bird)

  • Thomas Moore

  • Rochfort Maguire

  • Plover (Thomas Moore 1848–52;

  • Rochfort Maguire 1852–4)

1850–1Horatio Austin
  • Resolute (Horatio Austin)

  • Assistance (Erasmus Ommanney)

  • Intrepid (John Cator)

  • Pioneer (Sherard Osborn)

1850–4Robert McClureInvestigator (Robert McClure)Pacific
1850–5Richard CollinsonEnterprise (Richard Collinson)Pacific
1852–4Edward Belcher
  • Assistance (Edward Belcher)

  • Resolute (Henry Kellett)

  • Pioneer (Sherard Osborn)

  • Intrepid (Francis McClintock)

  • North Star (William Pullen)


The structure of this book is informed by media type and by the geographical and chronological specificities of provenance. The first two chapters examine the type of visual material created on ships in the Arctic, and the final three chapters focus on visual media in the metropole. This provides a better understanding of how the Arctic was transformed (how the contents of on-board material were selected and altered to create prints, panoramas, and texts), with the latter chapters informed by a knowledge of the former. On occasion, the use of case studies enables close examination of individual works and reveals processes of transformation.

Chapter 1, ‘On the Spot’, investigates the practice of drawing and painting aboard ship in the Arctic during the Franklin searches, revealing how sketches were made for various reasons, many of them unrelated to the more obvious purposes of science or navigation, and showing how close attention to their attributes allows new layers of information to emerge. The second chapter, ‘Breathing Time’, further examines the visual culture aboard ship through an exploration of illustrated on-board periodicals, which were a key part of the maritime culture during the Franklin search. These human-centred productions turn inwards to observe the ship’s inhabitants in winter quarters, focusing on social interaction and incidents. The Arctic itself and expedition members’ incongruous domestic life was the source of a humour that was personal and particular to the expedition members’ situation.

Moving then from the ship to the shore, I examine how the Arctic was presented to a public metropolitan audience and, where possible, show the on-board raw material from which these public pictures developed. Chapter 3, ‘These Dread Shores’, explores the text–picture interplay in narratives of travel and exploration that were published by members of search expeditions, revealing tensions between the domesticated and the sublime Arctic. In the fourth chapter, ‘Never to be Forgotten’, the practice of creating large-format paintings known as panoramas is examined in relation to the search, showing how a metropolitan audience anticipated education, entertainment, and an aesthetic experience from Robert Burford’s Summer and Winter Views of the Polar Regions (1850) at Leicester Square, London. Finally, Chapter 5, ‘Power and Truth’, observes how the Arctic and the act of searching were represented in folios of lithographs produced from officers’ sketches.109 By privileging the visual, the lithographs provided audiences with very specific Arctic narratives.

Visual Culture and Arctic Voyages shows how the appropriation of the story of Franklin, and the search parties that followed, into popular culture has evolved from the first-hand records of expedition members who went to the Arctic. Yet these records were transformed into commodities before they reached the public eye, often concealing the version of the Arctic that was local, intimate, and familiar. This local Arctic was fertile ground for the production of culture, with expedition members from all ranks partaking in representation. Moreover, the Arctic was exploited for humorous ends, with expedition members mining the incongruous nature of their situation. The narratives, prints, and panoramas that reached the metropolitan audience, however, displayed an icy, threatening world, which still reverberates in the popular imagination today.

While Jane Franklin, perhaps, searched for some clue as to the whereabouts of her husband at Leicester Square on that Saturday in early February 1850, William Browne (who is likely to have been present among the ‘gentlemen who had wintered in these northern latitudes’110) must have marvelled at how the creators of the panorama had transformed his on-the-spot sketches into a dramatic Arctic spectacular. This book is about such transformations, and how the increasingly familiar Arctic became alien and strange once it was transported to the metropole. In order to understand the visual complexities of these representations, it is necessary to begin by travelling to their source, by discovering the shipboard visual culture of the expeditions that sailed northwards in search of John Franklin and his men.

Figure 0

Figure 0.1 Map of the Arctic showing winter quarters of the maritime search expeditions and Indigenous communities in areas closest to expedition routes and winter quarters, 1848–59.

Map by author.
Figure 1

Figure 0.2 Samuel Gurney Cresswell,Critical Position of H.M.S. Investigatoron the North Coast of Baring Island, August 20th 1851, 1854. Lithograph, 44.3 × 61.2 cm.

Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.
Figure 2

Table 1 Details of the British naval maritime expeditions that searched for Franklin. Other naval expeditions functioned as supply and rescue endeavours to these expeditions already in the Arctic.

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  • Introduction
  • Eavan O'Dochartaigh, National University of Ireland, Galway
  • Book: Visual Culture and Arctic Voyages
  • Online publication: 03 March 2022
  • Chapter DOI:
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  • Introduction
  • Eavan O'Dochartaigh, National University of Ireland, Galway
  • Book: Visual Culture and Arctic Voyages
  • Online publication: 03 March 2022
  • Chapter DOI:
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  • Introduction
  • Eavan O'Dochartaigh, National University of Ireland, Galway
  • Book: Visual Culture and Arctic Voyages
  • Online publication: 03 March 2022
  • Chapter DOI:
Available formats