Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Franklin Daguerreotypes, Part II

In my last posting, I gave some general background on the Daguerreotypes made of Franklin and his officers just before their sailing in May of 1845.  There, I hinted that there was something further to be learned.  With thanks to my esteemed friend Dr Huw Lewis-Jones of the Scott Polar Research Institute, who first observed this phenomenon, I pass along a vision recovered from the reflective bill of Lieutenant Graham Gore's cap (see detail, inset).  The image seems clearly that of a ship, indicating that Gore's portrait was taken at dockside.  Yet which ship is it?  It seems to me to be a view of the stern of some vessel, but without any sails or rigging clearly visible.  There seem to be masts, but one of these appears bent, and connected with another protrusion.  Could one of these be the smokestack of a ship's engine, and a plume of smoke the source of this connection?  If so, the vessel would seem to be either "Erebus" or "Terror."  And yet tellingly, a line seems to extend from the ship's stern (if so it is), as though it were towing another vessel.  If that's the case, the ship could be the screw steam sloop HMS  "Rattler," for it towed both "Erebus" and "Terror" as far as Cape Wrath off Scotland.  Unlike the discovery ships, which would have hoarded their coal for later, the Rattler would have been under full steam for the journey, and was far more likely to be exuding smoke during the photographic session.  Rattler was the first screw-propeller driven warship in the world, and had famously won a contest with the side-wheel steamer Alecto, proving her pre-eminence by dragging the Alecto backwards at a speed of 2 knots in March of 1845.  The propellor of the Rattler is on display in Portsmouth to this day.

 But what else can we learn from these Dauguerreotypes?  My acquaintance Bill Schultz, a collector of and expert on early photography, prepared a lengthy essay on them for the 2005 edition of the Daguerreian Annual.   Schultz specializes in military and naval images, and his commentary describes each officer's uniform in detail.  For example, Franklin is wearing "a Cocked Hat or Chapeau, bound with black silk, which would have four loops of gold bullion with two center loops twisted."  Gore, above, "wears the undress uniform of a Lieutenant according to the uniform regulation of 1843; his epaulettes have shorter braid (than those of a commander or captain) and would have been without any insignia on the strap or in the crescent."

Is there more?  Clearly, the photographer sent by Beard's firm chose at least two different settings, or allowed the officers to do so.  Most of the subjects -- Franklin himself, Crozier, Fitzjames, Gore, Fairholme, Couch, Des Voeux, Sargent, Reid, Collins, Stanley, Goodsir, and Osmer, posed before a cloth backdrop; judging by Gore and Fairholme, this studio was set up dockside.  The backdrop varies somewhat; in Goodsir's case, it seems draped or curtained, with light passing on either side, while with the others, it appears flat and opaque.  Only Le Vesconte seems to have chosen to be photographed aboard ship; he stands with the wheel visible behind him, and a coil of rope hanging from the mast.  In his hand he holds a book with a paper label on its cover, idnetified by Schultz as the ship's log.  Ah, what any of us would give to have that book once more in our hands!

There is surely still more to be learned from these images; the Daguerreotype process produces plates with an incredible level of detail, as the grain size was as little as that of a single silver halide crystal.  The originals, properly copied, could be blown up by a factor of hundreds, and yield surprising results.

Reproduced in the pages of the Illustrated London News and Gleason's Pictorial, endlessly peered at in hopes of some new insight, these memorial versions of the Franklin expedition's officers have a haunting quality -- for they were the first, as well as the last, we would ever have of these bold and tragic figures.


  1. Judging from the picture, I do not think Gore's cap bill would reflect the surrounding ships but more likely whatever was in front and above him. This is based on the angle of the bill relative to the observer (camera).

    The "hull" of the ship looks like it is actually a band that runs along the top perimeter of the bill.

    My guess is that the reflections in Gore's cap might be the rigging and masts of the ship on which the pictures were made.

  2. A very sensible point -- in which case, we'd expect the masts and rigging of the "Erebus" to be those visible. I'm hoping to get a much higher-quality scan, with which one ought to be able to make out considerably more detail. The "hull" could be just the band, or it could be a reflection -- at a different angle -- of some other dark object. It does seem reasonable to suppose that the backdrop photos might also have been taken on deck.

  3. Russell,
    Can you or anyone else help with a problem relating to the Daguerreotypes? We are told that two copies were made of each subject on the Franklin Expedition. I have seen it said that two sets were made, and I also recall reading that there are twelve portraits in one set and fourteen in the other. It is certainly the case that Fitzjames was ‘snapped’ twice as he has a different pose in each picture. But I have a problem, because I’ve been trying actually to track down the two sets so I can make high quality reproductions of the two Fitzjames Daguerreotypes for my book.
    Generally it is said that one set is at the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge, and the other set is generally said to be either at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich or at the Derbyshire County archive at Matlock. I have been in touch with all of these places and I can confirm that while there is one set at Cambridge, there are NO DAGUERREOTYPES either at Greenwich or at Matlock. This means that unless someone else can find tell us where the second set is, then as far as I can see they have been lost.
    I didn’t want to place this comment until I was absolutely sure, but can we set up a Sherlock Holmes style search for the second set of Daguerreotypes? One thought which crosses my mind is this. We know that two Daguerreotypes of Fitzjames were taken , because of the well-known differences in his pose between the two, but how many others do we KNOW were taken twice. What is held at Matlock are what appear to be very early, and very small, photographs of Daguerreotypes. They are mounted on card and look to me like the model for the Illustrated London News prints which were published of the Expedition members in, I think, 1851. They are catalogued mistakenly as Daguerreotypes when they were entered into the Derbyshire archive. Perhaps there never were two sets of Daguerreotypes? Perhaps Fitzjames was the first sitter, with two taken of him, and then the others one at a time, with the set of prints produced before 1851 but referred to as ‘Daguerreotypes’.
    I’m going to post this speculation on my blog as well, and I hope someone can solve this little mystery, or perhaps collectively we all can, as seems to have happened with the Chronometer?
    Best regards,

  4. William, excellent idea. Count me in. I'll respond & carry on the discussion in your blog for now.