Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Franklin Daguerreotypes III

It's remarkable how little it turns out we sometimes know about things we thought we knew well. So, while the question over whether or not Richard Beard made two original sets in 1845 is debated at William Battersby's blog, I'd like to continue the series here on the history and meaning of the images we do have.  I've included in this posting an image of the entire set of 14 images, as they are mounted in the collection of the Derbyshire County Archives in Matlock.  It's a version seldom seen, but one that recalls the significance of the event as a whole, and collectively reiterates the strange and ghostly qualities of these images -- the first and last any of the subjects would sit for -- of the officers aboard Franklin's ships.

What can we say about this quality?  In his seminal study Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes recalls the uncanny sensation he had when gazing at a different Beard daguerreotype:

"One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon's youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852.  And I realized then, with an amazement that I have not been able to lessen since: 'I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.'  Sometimes I would mention this amazement, but no one seemed to share it, or even to understand it (life consists of these little touches of solitude)."

It is that odd solitude -- the awareness that every photograph is both oddly living -- preserving the gaze of the subject in a way that almost seems, wizard-like, to peer back at you out of its frame -- and yet announcing, without even having to say so, the ultimate mortality of us all -- that makes the Franklin daguerreotypes especially rich.  Every one of them is a window, and a tombstone.

Which makes, I suppose, the mounting at Matlock a sort of cemetery, ranked in rows.  The order differs from that used by the engraver for the Illustrated London News, so I am skeptical that the mounting was done for their use.  It has the look of something assembled by a patient, diligent, but (in modern terms) untrained archivist, one who wished very much to gather, preserve, and state the significance of these images. "Sailed from England 19th May 1845 in Search of the North-West Passage" -- the inscription seems to suggest they still sail, and will always.  For how can they be "lost" when, before our eyes, we have them right here?

So what more do we see?  I invite readers to post their own responses here.  I'd be interested in further thoughts on Franklin, Gore, or any other of the men.  What do we see in them, and what do they reveal in us?


  1. I'm posting this for my friend Dr Huw Lewis-Jones, who'd had difficulty posting from the UK:

    Hi Russell. I'm glad you've put this online - I am inclined to think that the dag [Gore's] was taken on deck. Beard likely set up a makeshift studio there (chair with clamp apparatus to keep the sitter still, open air, cloth backdrop) to make best use of the summer sunshine. Well, it is London, 1845...perhaps more typical London smog, fog, drizzle, etc and the like...but it would certainly have been a sunny day. Beard would not have risked the expense of the experiment otherwise. He would have certainly visited the ships - the only way to ensure the full complement of officers. The ILN reports this.

    It is likely these two sets were taken on one of the ships as they were in dock by the Thames, victualling and taking on other stores. They were receiving visitors throughout this period. My feeling is that Beard would have been welcomed on Erebus, and Franklin was the first to be subjected....

    His chum Gore follows soon after. In the highly polished peak of his cap we see rigging, in my mind. Rigging up to the lower yards of the ship on which they were gathered. SO, this is possibly the first and only 'photograph' surviving of HMS Erebus.

    That is why I have for some time been 'quite' excited about it.....

  2. Goodsir was an unusual young officer -- he'd a highly promising career in natural history, and left behind the post of Conservator of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh to take up a post as Assistant Surgeon, which was understood to enable him to serve as the expedition's naturalist. He obtained a leave of absence from the Edinburgh position, and may well have hoped that he would return from the expedition with a wealth of observations of the sort which would further natural science, and his career. There is also some suggestion that he might have planned to employ the daguerreotype apparatus to photograph specimens, a practice which had stirred some interest in Edinburgh in the early 1840's.

    So perhaps this background, so different from the other career naval officers, was one reason Goodsir struck a more meditative, studious pose.

  3. Hello Russel,I have recently joined,and hsve been following your posts which are very interesting. I was wondering why the 3 Mates(Couch,Des Voeux,and Sargent are said to be Lieutenants. We know that Lt Gore was promoted as in "The late Commander Gore" in the Victory point note as was James Fitzjames. Were they promoted Post mortem out of respect?

  4. Hi, and thanks for your observation about this -- it's an important point. All three of the Mates were "gazetted" (promoted in absentia) within two years of the sailing: Sargent on August 15th 1846, Des Voeux on November 9th 1846, and Couch on May 24th, 1847. Since the new ranks are noted on the card on which the images were mounted, this fact is most useful, as it proves that it could not have been assembled prior to the end of May, 1847!

    Gore was also gazetted Commander, but of course he and the others would not have known of these promotions, though they would not be unexpected either (Fitzjames wonders in one of his letters if he's been made Captain yet). So "the late Commander Gore" must be in reference to a field promotion, which Franklin or (after his death) Crozier could have made under extraordinary circumstances. It's often speculated that the promotion was for finding the "last link" but this is pure conjecture.

  5. Three points:

    1. Goodsir was also the subject of what I believe is a very early photograph. I don't have it to hand but I think it is on google images somewhere. In the photo you can see plainly it's the same guy without any pose. In this Dag he seems to have contrived a pose of 'the thinker'.

    2. It seems that when Franklin died Fitzjames became Captain, HMS Erebus (in contravention of Franklin's orders) and Gore, as senior Lieutenant on HMS Erebus, would naturally become his Commander, so I believe the 'promoted for finding the NW Passage' concept to be unlikely.

    3. Fitzjames did not 'wonder' whether he'd been made a Captain on 30th June, 1845. He knew he was about to be promoted Captain - just didn't know the date....

  6. The bill of Lt. Fairholm's cap shows reflections similar to those seen on Lt. Gore's.

    The background appears to be some kind of cloth with light and shadows cast on it. Some portraits share the exact same background (Fairholme and Reid, Couch and Collins). The shadow of a handle or cleat seems to be cast to the right side of the portraits of DesVoeux and Fitzjames.

    Levescount's portrait is particularly fascinating to me because the background shows a mast and ship's wheel. My guess is that this is either the Erebus or Terror. The background is what I would expect a large flush decked sailing ship to look like. With a deck plan we might be able to locate where this portrait was taken. Levescount is also one of only two crew members to be found and identified (with a high degree of certainty) in the KWI area.

    Gore appears confident (but this might be a front to hide his worrying about a missing chronometer). Fitzjames looks dashing in his portrait. From Fitzjames' writings Reid sounds like an interesting and highly experienced character. Are the telescope parts, now in a museum, from the telescope Reid holds? Was it Reid the Inuit met at Washington Bay and was he the man with a telescope found on the Todd Islets?

    Franklin looks uncomfortable and stiff (he probably was). His portrait is slightly blurred relative to the others. Particularly fascinating to me is the medal around Franklin's neck which is now in the NMM. The crew didn't bury him with his medals probably intending to bring them back to Lady Franklin. Was this normal practice?

    I didn't have the complete set of crew portraits until now. Thanks for posting this.

  7. Thanks for posting the image! I certainly see the family resemblance in Lt. Le Vesconte.

    BK McDonald,
    son of a LeVesconte

  8. More seriously, I wonder about their state of dress. did officers demand more spit-and-polish from their men, or was that just the look of the day for seamen?

    If they had posed for a (painted) portrait, the artist might have straightened their collars and and made things more symmetrical. I wonder if photography was so new that subjects were not aware that every wrinkle would show forever.

    BK McDonald

  9. For some reason the picture that i find the most striking is the one of Gore,its just the way he has that confident look,and he looks every part the 1st Lt that he is.
    The image itself is also one of the better exposed pictures,and it is for that reason i would love to get a decent copy so i can colourise it,as Russell mentioned in a previous post that he had seen a coloured one of Sir John Franklin in a book.Does anyone know where i can get a better copy of Lt Gore ,if succesfull i would send a copy to all members.
    Does anyone know why there are no pictures of the Officers of the Terror apart from Captain Crozier. It is a shame that we cannot see the likes of Lt's Little,Hodgson and Irving and the mates as we saw from the Erebus daguerreotype.

  10. Does anyone know the exposure times for daguerreotypes? I know in the very early days of film, exposures (even in bright sunlight) required the subject to stay motionless for minutes, and often a device was placed behind the subject to help the head stay still.

    I am wondering if this influenced the pose of Goodsir. Perhaps he had some injury or illness which prevented him from assuming a more normal pose for several minutes.

  11. Thanks Bill, and Paige, for your comments.

    I believe the reasons that it was the officers of HMS "Erebus" who were photographed were likely 1) The daguerreotype apparatus was meant for that ship; 2) It was Franklin's ship of command; and 3) The photographs were likely taken aboard that vessel. Crozier, as Franklin's second, had privilege by rank, but the other officers of the Terror may simply not have been summoned to the session.

    As to the exposure times -- while still long by today's standards, much progress had been made, and especially by Beard himself, in lowering the time; my understanding is that it would have been around 30 seconds.

  12. A second follow-up to Bill Greenwell's post -- in addition to a quite stunning full-color reproduction of the Franklind daguerreotype, with gold frame, rosy cheeks and all, you can see an excellent large-size reproduction of Gore's in Huw Lewis-Jones's Face to Face: Polar Portraits. These are just two of many gems in the book, and the introductory essay on the history of polar photography is the best thing out there, and discusses daguerreotypes at some length. I believe the first print-run is sold out, but another is on its way and you may yet be able to obtain a copy at a bookshop or online.

    Of course, the amazing thing about dags is the level of detail -- even the fine images in the book could, with archival techniques, be magnified a few times more and may yet give up details hitherto unseen ...

  13. Given the length of the exposure required to get a clear picture, and for the subject to remain perfectly still during that time,I am doubtful that the pictures were taken on board ship.
    The ships although in dock,would still have been swaying/moving in the water ever slightly,and if any were taken on board they would have been blurred surely.
    Lt Le Vesconte's photo seems to be the one associated with being taken on board,could the deck have been used as a backdrop?

  14. Hello Russell, thanks for the reply about Dr Hew Lewis-Jones's book Face to Face Polar Portraits,i am looking into getting a copy now,thanks

  15. Re Bill's comment about the ship movement showing up in photographs, I don't see why this would happen. First, water movement on board a relatively large ship *in the dock*, as opposed to out on the sea or in the current of the river, would surely have been negligible with no sails set, even undetectable, except perhaps in high wind. Second, the camera, mounted on a tripod, and the subject being photographed, mounted on a chair, would have shared any movement the ship made, so would not have been moving relative to each other.

  16. I must admit i had second thoughts on my post regarding the movement of the ship,I got talking to a few people after i'd posted and they basically said the same as you.Must remember to engage brain before posting in future.Thanks Jonathan for pointing this out.

  17. I'm going to shamelessly bump this post and hope someone reads it :P First of all I want to thank Russell for this blog, that has been the source of non-stop joy for me since I was bitten by the Franklin bug. It's not only an amazing place to read, learn and absorb information, but also it inspired me to do my own little research here and there.

    In regards to Franklin dags, I haven't found anyone commenting on the reflection in Harry Goodsir's daguerreotype, and I think it's worth a look.
    These days I've been trying to restore and enhance the young surgeon's dag and I realized there seems to be two versions with very different image qualities. Could it be that they are indeed two different takes, like it's been proposed before? I haven't studied them too exhaustively, but the differences, if any at all, must be minimal. The more widespread one is this:
    In the other one, the facial features are much more defined: the eyebrows are now visible and we see Goodsir sporting a less... umm, feeble gaze:

    Just to give an idea, a quick (and a bit sloppy) retouch, with some filters here and there:

    There are also other interesting details. We can see a rope, the sheet or piece of fabric used as a background is more evident, the hair...etc.

    But the reflection in the chair caught my eye. If it's the same chair used for the other daguerreotypes, and it may very well be, then we know it had a very polished surface (see Gore's or Couch's dag, for example) that could have gloriously been reflecting what these men had in front of their eyes!
    Detail here:

    I for one see the front area of a boat. I think it's called the bow? I'm not a native English speaker, sorry. Something like this:

    I'm probably reading too much into it but could it be the Erebus? It would be nice to think it might be! I would love to hear your opinions anyway.

    Kind regards from Spain

  18. Hello Beatriz,

    Many many thanks indeed for your quite observant and well-though-out comment! I believe you may well be right, both about there being two Goodsir dags, and about the value of the reflection in the chair. I've passed on your comments to William Battersby, who has made a special study of the Franklin daguerreotypes, and he and/or I will have more toi say soon -- in the meantime, we just say "thanks"!!

  19. Hello Russell,

    Thanks a lot for your reply! I'm more than happy to see that my comment was of interest to you. It's always exciting to think one could have found even the smallest, the tiniest piece of this puzzle, and whether it fits or not, it's really really fun to try. I'm truly looking forward to hear what William and you have to say about the matter.
    These photographs are so fascinating that it's almost like every time you look at them they are somehow trying to tell us something new. Crozier dag always strikes me as the odd one out here in this set, though. Was his daguerreotype taken that very same day? Even the buttons on his jacket looked different. Did the officials of The Terror wear different uniforms?

    May I ask here if you or any of your readers know about any facebook group out there regarding the Franklin expedition? It would be a nice way to find and meet other people with this liking.