Thursday, September 28, 2023

Franklin's knowledge of the Daguerreotype Process

One of the questions about the Daguerreotypes by Beard that were auctioned off last week at Sotheby's has been whether or not Beard's operator would have used a reversing prism or mirror (there could also have possibly been more than one operator, and more than one sitting). Harry Goodsir noted the photographer's arrival, though he mistook the process, calling him a "Talbotypist," as he had some experiece with that process, and had sat for a portrait using it, back in Scotland.

Franklin himself, though, was already quite familiar with the Daguerreotype process, and indeed with Richard Beard's studio. Francis Russell Nixon, the newly-consecrated Bishop of Van Diemen's Land, had in fact brought with him several of Beard's Daguerreotypes when he arrived in Hobart Town in 1843, and it's very likely Franklin saw them. Nixon also showed them to Alfred Bock, who was so delighted by them that he embarked on what was to be a lengthy career as one of Australia's pioneering photographers. Bock tried to establish a commercial studio, but was discouraged when George Barron Goodman -- who had purchased a sub-patent from Beard -- complained about Beck's advertisements. This pushed the opening of his establishment to 1847, though he seems to have been privately active as a photographer throughout the period of the delay.

Dr. William Bland, by Goodman
Goodman had opened his first studio in Sydney in 1842, urging local citizens to "endure half a minute of immobility" to obtain a fine portrait, using a structure he built on the roof of the Royal Hotel in Sydney. He was not, alas, as successful in this endeavor as Beard; his images came out rather dark, one local reviews spoke of a "want of life" while another decried their "cadaverous and unearthly appearance." The surviving images don't seem quite as awful as all that, though many do seem to lack contrast. For our purposes, what matters is that Goodman left Sydney for Hobart in 1843, opening a Daguerreian studio in a boarding house at 20 Patrick Street, which was in business from that summer to February of 1844. After his departure, he continued the pattern of running his studio out of temporary quarters, and after a few years of further moves, he quit the business and retired to the Continent, dying in Paris in 1851. 

The takeway from all this is that Franklin, either through Bishop Nixon (who became a close friend of the Franklins), Bock (who was the son of the ex-convict painter Thomas Bock, known for his portrait of the Franklins' adopted daughter Mathinna), or Goodman, was surely acquainted with the Daguerreotype process. Further confirmation comes via an item published in the very first issue of the Tasmanian Journal -- the organ of the Royal Society of Tasmania, founded by the Franklins -- in which an excerpt from a letter from Dr. Richardson to Franklin was published, touching specifically on Daguerreotypes, their use in photographing natural history specimens (!), and a method for turning them directly into printing plates in order to reproduce them. While this method -- which was destructive of the original Daguerreotype -- never caught on, the fact that Franklin and Richardson were discussing it with such easily familiarity as early as 1840 seems quite clear evidence that both men had already taken a keen interest in the process, even before local operators arrived in Hobart.

courtesy Sotheby's
So when, in May of 1845, Franklin sat for what (so far as we know) was his first and only Daguerreotypic portrait, he had been familiar with the technology for more than five years -- and, I suspect, would have noticed the presence or absence of a mirror or prism on the front of the camera, and deduced (or inquired about) its purpose. In either orientation, his Daguerreotype shows the medals on the "short" side (underside) of his uniform, which is the wrong side, so he must have anticipated their being reversed.  And I believe he would have noticed if Beard's operator had used a mirror or prism -- so my surmise would be that he did not. Beard's may well have advertised -- and produced -- non-reversed images, but that may just as readily been done in the copying process as when the image was first taken. 

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Richard Beard, the Daguerreotype and the Images of the Franklin Expedition

Guest post by Frank Michael Schuster

The month of May 1845, when Sir John Franklin's expedition set sail started out as a cold and unfriendly one throughout Europe. An outbreak of the flu was raging in London, which had also caught the expedition's leader. But by mid-May the weather improved and the 15th and 16th of May were sunny and noticeably warmer than the days before and after. Perhaps that was why a camera operator, or as they called it in those days, a Daguerreotypist from one of Richard Beard's studios, was just then coming on board HMS Erebus. He had been commissioned by Lady Jane Franklin to take photographs of Sir John and the other officers of the flagship, as well as Franklin's second-in-command Francis Crozier. With the help of a heavy curtain and a simple wooden chair, a makeshift studio was created on deck, where the men, supervised by the officers, still stowed provisions and other supplies. This might be why the officers in the pictures are wearing only their "undress uniform" instead of one of the more formal ones usually more appropriate to the occasion. Some, like Lieutenant James Walter Fairholme, are not even wearing their coats given the surprisingly mild weather. For, when it was his turn to be photographed, he simply borrowed “Fitzjames' coat [...], to save myself the trouble of getting my own,” as he later wrote to his father (Potter et. al., May We Be Spared 146). Unfortunately, we know nothing about the wind on those days, but the camera operator obviously wanted to take advantage of the sunny day.

The entrepreneur Richard Beard (1801-1885), whose employee was taking the pictures, was interested in everything he could make money from. That is why he had become fascinated by the new possibilities of photography. A few weeks after the new invention by he Frenchman Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) in 1839 he had acquired a license for his process for England and Wales. Knowing that Daguerre's process only produced a one-off image,  Beard also took an interest in the calotype process invented by William Fox Talbot (1800-1877). Talbot’s pictures could be reproduced relatively easily, but Beard could not come to an agreement with the inventor. 

figure 1
So Beard set out to solve the three major problems his customers had with the daguerreotype as quickly as possible: The exposure time was too long for portraits, the images were slightly distorted and mirror-inverted, and they could not be duplicated. By hiring the chemist John Frederick Goddard (1795-1866) and by using an American camera patented in March 1840 in England he was able to reduce the exposure time considerably to under a minute. As the inventors Alexander S. Wolcott (1804 -1844) & John Johnson (1813-1871) did not use a lens, but a concave mirror instead, the images were not reversed, and thus the second problem was solved. (figure 1) That the images were slightly distorted, just like today, hardly bothered anyone, apart from the Duke of Wellington, who complained that his nose was too big in the image. 

The pictures were tiny, just 2 x 2.5 inches (5 x 6 cm), a format usually referred to as the “Ninth Plate”, because the plates originally produced for the photographs could be cut into nine pieces. But as many people were used to miniature paintings, which had been very en vogue before, this was not a problem, which left just one, problem to solve, and Beard again did what others didn't.

Figure 2

The Frenchman Antoine Claudet (1797-1867), also held a license from Daguerre since 1839 and thanks to this was able to open his own studio in London in 1841, despite Beard’s license for the whole of England. Claudet used two cameras (figure 2). In this way he got two nearly identical pictures at once. Beard’s operator's used their relatively easy reloadable camera a to take two pictures in quick succession. As John Johnson also had invented a device for preparing and polishing the silver-coated copper photographic plates, there was no need to do this by hand anymore. Thus Beard’s operators were faster then Claudet's, as an astonished Journalist of The Spectator reported on 4 September 1841.  This led to the erroneous surmise that Beard's camera allowed two photos to be taken at the same time by adjusting a mirror. 

Figure 3
In early 1843 the problem of how to duplicate a daguerreotype was finally solved, when Wolcott and Johnson invented a copying apparatus. It was basically a daguerreotype camera to photograph daguerreotypes, which additionally was suitable for enlarging and could be used as a projector (figure 3). Using mirrors, the copy was reverted to the original. This meant, in order to obtain an identical image of the original, it was necessary to make a copy of the copy. The inventors themselves came to London to set it up in Beard's studios. After all, the customers had become more demanding and expected larger pictures. 

Therefore, at the same time Beard also changed his camera. From then on, he used a camera that could take pictures in the "sixth plate" format, that is 2.75 x 3.25 inches (7 x 8 cm). Even the ever critical William Henry Fox Talbot called Johnson’s and Wolcott’s improved Daguerreotypes in March 1843 “the most perfect thing of the kind I have yet seen."

But unfortunately little is known about the new camera itself. The only thing certain is that it used the powerful lens newly invented by the Hungarian-German mathematician Joseph Petzval (1807-1891) and distributed throughout Europe by the Austrian optician Friedrich von Voigtländer (1812-1878).

As the images were now taken with a lensed camera, it was usually assumed that they were now inverted. As the images of the Franklin expedition officers where taken with the same camera, it was (up to now) thought that the daguerreotypes of Sir John Franklin, Commander James Fitzjames, Lieutenant Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, the purser Charles H. Osmer and the surgeon Stephen S. Stanley from the collection of the Scott Polar Research Institute are originals, as well as the images of Captain Francis R. M. Crozier, James Fitzjames, the mate Charles Frederick Des Voeux, and the assistant surgeon Henry Goodsir, which have now surfaced, because these images are inverted, while the others would be copies. But as with everything related to the Franklin expedition, it is not that easy. 

Figure 4 
And yet, a year after the expedition had left England, Beard’s competitor Claudet proudly declared in an advertisement in The Times on 20 May 1846 that all his portraits were now taken with “the right and left side in their natural position,” whereupon the angry Beard responded in the same paper on 9 June by pointing out that his pictures had always been non-reversed, "first by means of his patent concave reflector, and also (for more than three years past) by the use of a reflector in combination with a lens." (The Times, 9 June 1846; figure 4).

Figure 5
What this reflector looked like, we don’t know for sure, as we don’t know much about the camera improved by Johnson and Wolcott. The easiest solution to get a non-reversed image was to put an adjustable mirror in front of the lens at a 45° angle, as for example a lens marketed from the French photographer Pierre-Ambrose Richebourg (1810-1875) shows. (figure 5)

 The problem with such a simple device was that it easily shifted, especially in windy conditions. Unfortunately, we neither know if it was used at all, if the camera was aimed at or past the sitter, nor what the wind conditions were like during that particular days. It may be that the camera operator sometimes used the correction mirror and sometimes not. It could very well be that all the newly discovered daguerreotypes are originals, whether or not they have been reversed. The two mirror-inverted shots of Fitzjames might indeed be originals, as they are not identical. The same may be true of the different shots of Des Voeux, although one is mirrored and the other is not. Perhaps the original also went to the family and one of the surviving daguerreotypes is a copy. 

However, most of the surviving images of the officers of the Erebus, of which there are two identical photographs, are not reversed. If they are not both copies, then Beard's employees must even have made copies of copies, which may well be the case, given the high demand. James Fitzjames alone wanted three or four pictures, as he wrote in a letter. (see Potter et. al. May We Be Spared p. 117).

 Looking at the Illustrated London News of 13 September 1851 (p. 329) does not help either. Although the images, or rather engravings after the daguerreotypes, finally appeared in the press the comment published with them tells us nothing about how they where taken. On the contrary: It even contains at least one major error: While it's true that Richard Beard had supplied the Franklin expedition with a complete Daguerreotype apparatus, as the author of the comment to the images explained, this was probably not the same camera with which the pictures were taken. As the polishing apparatus invented by Johnson in 1841 has been discovered in the wrack of HMS Erebus recently, we know, that the camera on board the ship must be Wolcott's original mirror camera, as the polishing device was made for ninth-plate images, as Peter Carney has noted.  It's a forgivable mistake more than half a decade after the pictures were taken, especially as the author was not a specialist in daguerreotypes but rather in maritime matters, as it is none other than William Richard O’Byrne, (1823–1896) the author of the “Naval Biographical Dictionary” published two years earlier in 1849.

 So what remains but confusion? 

If photos were indeed only taken on one day, and the camera operator only came back on the second day to present the pictures, or if the studio was still in the same place on the second day as it was on the first, it may even be possible to tell from a close examination of the images whether and when a corrective mirror was used. For Daguerreotypes are so clear that one can sometimes sense the reflection of the camera and the camera operator behind it in the pupils of the sitter. Or since there is at least one shot (that of Le Vesconte) where you can see where he was sitting, you might even be able to tell from the reflections on the caps where the camera was pointed. 

But this is a matter for others, for whom the question of whether it is an original or not is more important than for me and who, above all, have more patience than I .

The author would like to thank Gina Koellner, Mary Williamson, Peter Carney, Michael Robinson, Bill Schulz and last but not least Russell Potter for their inspiration and helpful comments.

Friday, August 25, 2023

The newfound Franklin Daguerreotypes

Courtesy of Sotheby's
Sometimes, historical artifacts can be doubly lost -- lost in the sense that their present location is unknown, but also lost in the sense that nobody even suspected that they existed. Such is the case with the set of Daguerreotypes soon to go before the hammer at Sotheby's -- they are apparently Lady Franklin's own presentation set -- and will offer yet another doubling of the views we now possess.
The main reason that no one was previously aware of them -- other than the fact that their owner, a direct descendant of Sir John, is said to have been very private -- is that we thought we already had them. That is, we'd assumed that the fine, gold-toned ones at the Scott Polar Research Institute -- given as part of the Lefroy bequest (these were Sopia Cracroft's relatives) were Lady Franklin's set. And yet, all the while, this extraordinary set had remained in family hands, well and quietly looked after, in what appears to be its original presentation case from the firm of Richard Beard.

A close look at the set reveals that it's not completely unseen -- in fact, this very set was used as the source for the full-page woodcut in the Illustrated London News. Both the left-right orientation and the order of the Daguerreotypes match; this makes it quite clear that this set was the likley source. Somewhat confusingly, the ILN seems to say that the set they engraved was based on Beard's set, but if so it must have been identically arranged. Another curious feature, noticed by Peter Carney, is that -- judging from the buttons -- some of these images are copy Daguerreotypes, since the copying process reverses the reversed image and puts the buttons back on the "right" side!

The one other set of images that we have -- the mounted copies now in the Derbyshire Record Office at Matlock --  seems to have used the same source Daguerreotypes, but in a different order. This set is associated with Franklin's daughter Eleanor, and there's reason to regard it as her personal one (it's since come to light that the paper prints were more probably made around 1875, so a set of the originals certainly remained in family hands at that time).  All this of course leaves even more mystery around the long-known Daguerreotypes at Scott Polar, many of which show the subjects in different poses, and which set is missing any image of Francis Crozier -- had Sophy purchased some "second poses" at the same time as her aunt's set? Did some of the officers not claim their likenesses?

But whatever the actual differences in arrangement and provenance, it's clear that, as Sotheby's has indicated, the set they have on offer is the "premier" set -- one assembled at the time, in a contemporary case that may very well have been made for them by Beard's. In his letter of May 19th, Reid underscores this point: "Lady Franklin hase ordered all the officers Likeness to bee taken and mine amongst the Rest, with my uniform on - She keeps them all by herself." All that is consistent with the newly known cased set.

Image on left Courtesy of Sotheby’s
So what do we learn from these new images? Well, for one that the engraver for the ILN was not a terribly good portraitist; many of the faces seem quite wrong, and (by way of example) Reid seems a good two stone lighter in his woodcut. But now that we can compare the original Daguerreotypes to the paper copies, we can see how much was lost in the translation. Nowhere is that more apparent than with the images of Francis Crozier, who seems almost a different man in his Daguerreian version; as my friend and fellow Franklin researcher Logan Zachary put it, 
"It's an extraordinarily different Crozier, despite being the exact same photograph.  His face has quite literally been "fleshed out" now, with details added back in that we didn't know we were missing.  His eyes and chin have much more definition, and somehow even his lips and nose look fuller in the new image.  He simply looks like a different man.  The worried, almost indecisive look from the old photograph melts away -- he looks like a Captain now, someone who gave orders."
Part of this, of course, is due to the careful gold-toning and tinting with which these new images were prepared, in addition to the going-over of all the buttons and hat-bands with a translucent golden ink. But the level of detail is simply magnitudes higher; Calotypes are paper prints from paper negatives, and are by their nature a tad "grainy"; Daguerreotypes are metal plates, sensitized and developed by vapors, and their thin skin of exactitude has a grain size not much larger that a molecule of silver halide, roughly 1-2 micrometers.

Image Courtesy Sotheby's
Seeing Crozier whole is thus a powerful experience on so many levels. Some, I know, might wish they'd skipped the golden ink, and its application to his slightly-scrunched hatband looks a tad silly -- but, combined with the flesh tones of the face, it seems to me to add considerably to the sense of "presence." Daguerreotypes, as a form, have that particular ghostly quality, one that the cultural historian Walter Benjamin called the "aura." And -- though there is nothing quite like holding a Dag in one's hand and tilting it until, in a feat of angular magic, lo, the apparition comes! -- it seems to me that these crisply digital copies have nearly that same aura. They will give me, and many others for whom this is such an essential story, food for thought for a long while yet.

Friday, May 26, 2023

A Visit with Parks Canada (Part 3 of 3)

Charles Dagneau opening a drawer of relics for myself and Mary Williamson 
Of course, throughout the tour all of us felt immensely excited to learn more about the vital work being done on the Franklin relics, but we couldn't help ourselves if the most exciting prospect of all was to see conserved relics that we could actually examine, and even hold in our (gloved) hands! Our guide for this portion of the tour was Parks archaeologist Charles Dagneau, whom most of us had first met back at the Death in the Ice opening in Ottawa in March of 2018. Now, five years later, we had the immense good fortune to visit the twin vaults that store conserved artifacts -- Franklin's amongst many others -- and really see them up close.

Fragment of the wheel of HMS Erebus
There are two vaults, as it happens -- one in which the humidity is kept higher, so as to prevent any further drying-out of organic (wood, leather, ropeage, etc.) artifacts -- and one in which the humidity is kept low, so as to minimize the chance of rust or corrosion on metal objects. We visited the high-humidity room first, where we saw the wheel of the Breadalbane (see last post) as well as the section of the wheel of HMS Erebus. It was a remarkable feeling to grasp -- again, with gloved hands -- the wheel that Franklin and his helmsmen had grasped when steering their ship amidst the Arctic ice! Also in this room we saw ceramic objects -- indifferent to moisture as they are -- including several of the transferware and other plates and serving vessels so far recovered. Charles explained to us the how the quality of the China gave an indication of those who dined upon it: the Blue Willow plates would have been used by the crew in the forecastle, while the Whampoa ones were likely from Franklin's own table in the great cabin, or else the officers' mess.

We then went to the room of metal objects, which I'd been particularly curious to see. Among the stars there was the still-unidentified "scientific instrument," which is visible in the photo at top -- it was far smaller than I'd pictured it, and more delicate; clearly it had been made with care and precision, but for what purpose we don't yet know. 

The heavy metal object
Nearby, I spotted a smaller, heavier metal object -- it had a handle shaped rather like one might see on a large rubber stamper, but was all solid brass; the underside disclosed a flat surface, within which was a smaller rectangle with a small half-moon cutaway on one side. I was struck at once by the fact that the square seemed similar in proportion to the Franklin daguerreotypes made by the operator from Richard Beard's firm. I knew that, as part of the Daguerreotype process, the silver-covered copper plates had to be carefully polished to a mirror-like finish, and it struck me that the object might have been used for such polishing.

After our tour, I had to head back home to Rhode Island -- I'd driven to Ottawa -- and didn't get back until quite late. The next day, looking at the image of that metal object, I decided I'd send it to Bill Schultz, a friend and collector whose article on the Franklin Daguerreotypes is a standard reference in the field. He was quite excited, and agreed with my inference; he in turn sent the photos to Mike Robinson, the president of the Daguerreian Society and one of the world's top experts on the historical process.

Johnson's Patent
Mike at once recognized it as part of a plate-polishing apparatus patented by John Johnson in 1841; the identification was made all the more certain because Johnson himself was a business associate of Richard Beard! If, as described in the Illustrated London News, the Beard apparatus used to take the officers' portraits in 1845 was the same as was stowed aboard ship, it would make perfect sense that it would have included Johnson's device. However, on checking the object's measurements, Peter Carney realized that it corresponded with the smaller, ninth-plate format (the Franklin portraits were sixth-plates); based on this, Mike said it's more likely that a different camera, a Wolcott model which used a tin mirror in the place of a lens, was the one Beard supplied to the expedition (Wolcott was also a business partner of Johnson, and his camera is sometimes called the Wolcott-Johnson camera).

So now we have something we didn't have before: clear evidence that indeed such an apparatus was aboard HMS "Erebus," and that, assuming it was used as intended, Daguerreotypes were almost certainly made during the expedition. It's only one small step to add to the hope that someday such plates may be recovered; if they are, they'll be the earliest photographs ever taken in the Arctic!

In conclusion, I'd like to extend our warm and collective thanks to Jonathan Moore, Charles Dagneau, Cindy Lee Scott, and everyone else we met for their tremendous generosity in giving us a glimpse of the less-visible -- but extraordinarily important -- work they do in these labs.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

A Visit with Parks Canada (part 2 of 3)

Charles Dagneau, Cindy Lee Scott, and Jonathan Moore
Our tour now commenced in earnest. One of the first staff members we met was Cindy Lee Scott, who among her other responsibilities is in charge of the making of replicas of artifacts for display. She was particularly excited to show us her new and larger 3D printer, along with a series of preliminary versions of the replica of the sword hilt found aboard HMS "Erebus." Through looking at these alongside one another, we could see how corrections were made, including those of precise scale, before the final version for the Death in the Ice was produced. Later on, we were able to see the original hilt; it was remarkable to see how every exact detail had been matched.

Trial hilts
Cindy Lee then continued guiding our tour, taking us to other departments such as the reproduction lab, the paper lab, and finally the objects lab. There, we saw numerous artifacts still undergoing various processes to stabilize their materials. In a large tank, we saw the recovered cannon, now down to its final few baths, its surface looking as smooth and sharp as it must have when it was mounted aboard ship. Later, we saw the three cannonballs that were found inside its bore; they'd been difficult to extract, explained Parks archaeologist Charles Dagneau, and had to eventually be mechanically "scooped" out. Cindy Lee's enthusiasm for her work, and the excitement she and other staff based at the lab felt about the process of conserving the recovered items from the ship, came through loud and clear.

Near these tanks, we also saw a freeze-dryer, in which paper, wood, and certain other organic items were being treated. Here, the goal is to extract all moisture, something which sometimes follows, and sometimes precedes, other treatment. Wood, of course, can pose a special challenge, as when it dries it also loses a good portion of some of its internal material; this then has to be replaced with polyethylene glycol (known as PEG in the trade). Many will recall the wreck of the Mary Rose, which after being brought to the surface and reconstructed, had to constantly be sprayed with cold water to prevent this loss, and thereafter with PEG to replace the lost water so that each element would maintain its structural strength. The process is similar with much smaller wooden items.

The wheel of Breadalbane
Each type of wood or metal may have varying requirements, and artifacts with more than one type pose a special challenge. One of the most challenging ever was the ship's wheel of the Breadalbane, a supply ship and part of a Franklin search convoy, which sank off Beechey Island in 1853. It was removed by the ever-intrepid Joe MacInnis, who had discovered the wreck in 1980 -- against the strong advice of archaeologists -- and spent many many years in conservation due to its several types of wood and different metals. It rests now in a custom-made case in Parks's conservation facility, a testimony both to the Franklin search and the care and persistence of conservators.

In my next installment, I'll be taking my readers into that same vault where the wheel is stored -- specifically to those shelves on which those Franklin artifacts that have made it through the conservation process are stored!

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

A Visit with Parks Canada (part 1 of 3)

In a city filled with government buildings, this one doesn't stand out all that much, not from outside. Among other things, it contains a laboratory where children's toys are tested for their safety. But to me -- along with my colleagues Peter Carney and Mary Williamson -- this building stands alone, as it houses the most fascinating collection of materials in our world -- the artifacts brought up from HMS "Erebus" in the Canadian Arctic -- as well as the remarkable team of talented professionals who work with them, from the moment of their recovery to when -- sometimes months or even years later -- they have been fully conserved and stabilized, and may be stored or exhibited safely to generations to come.

Our host for our visit was Jonathan Moore, a veteran member of Parks's Underwater Archaeology Team (UAT) who last year became the the team's manager (many will recall his precursor, Marc-André Bernier, who recently retired). Jon helped us get cleared and signed in, then guided us down seemingly endless corridors with automatically-opening doors, reminiscent (as he noted) of the opening sequence of the 60's spy spoof Get Smart!

Behind the last set of these doors, we settled in for an introductory briefing in the team's work room, which includes a large bank of drawers for horizontal storage, a couple of glass cases with resin replicas of artifacts (Franklin's and others), and a table  featuring a meticulous model of the wreck of "Erebus," with a model Parks underwater archaeologist suspended near the as-yet-unretrieved ship's bell. Here we got a preview of the day's tour, which would include meeting many of the other staff members who check in, establish conservation plans, and keep track of, a wide and growing array of artifacts that range in size from a toothpick to a cannon.

When a new artifact arrives, having been stabilized sufficiently for transport, it's assessed in terms of what its conservation protocols should be. Metal articles, for instance, may require an extended soak in various solutions in order to help remove accretions, stabilize the metal's surface, and protect it against the eventual exposure to air. Wooden or paper items, in contrast, need mainly to be dried, but it's a process that requires extraordinary care. With wood, one later step requires a special polymer which, once absorbed by the wood, will fill the cavities between its fibers and give it sufficient strength to hold together. Paper is its own special case, especially if it appears to consist of multiple sheets, which require careful timing and great care to separate as the process finishes. For those reasons, the book or "portfolio" recovered during the 2022 dive season was unavailable for us to see.

And so, after our introductory briefing, we set out for our tour of the premises. First, we'd see the work area where the UAT's suits, helmets, and equipment are stored; then the area where replicas of the artifacts are carefully prepared; after that, a visit with the book and paper conservator, and the artist whose careful sketches help record each object and the location where it has been found. Lastly, of course, that area of the building which we were keenest to see -- the rooms where conserved relics are stored. Over the next few days, I'll be sharing the highlights of our visit, concluding with those much anticipated rooms -- it's my hope that my readers will get the sense of sharing in our excitement. So stay tuned!

Monday, December 19, 2022

Potential written material found on HMS Erebus

Image from Parks Canada
 It could be the breakthrough we've all been waiting for since the rediscovery of Franklin's ships -- or it could be just a small and tantalizing addition to what we know. In news covered around the world yesterday, we learned of what Ryan Harris, veteran member of the Parks Canada Underwater Archaeology Team (and the first person to see the shadow of "Erebus" on a sonar screen in 2014), called "the most remarkable find of the summer": a leatherbound folio, containing leaves of paper and a quill pen tucked inside its cover, found in the area of the steward's pantry of HMS Erebus.

The dream of finding additional written materials goes back at least to the 1870's, when Jane Franklin asked Sir Allen Young to return to the Arctic in hopes of finding some; she died before he returned, and his expedition found no new papers. The cry of "papers" once again became the motivating factor for Schwatka's search of 1878-80, and while they made some remarkable finds of human remains and other artifacts, the only sheet of paper they recovered turned out to be -- symbolically enough -- a blank one.

We don't know yet whether this new find bears any legible writing -- it's apparently still in the laboratory where paper conservators are patiently working on it -- and of course, even if it did, there's no telling how informative it might be. Other items found earlier in this area were associated with Edmund Hoar, Sir John Franklin's personal steward, and among these a pencil case was prominent. Might the newfound folio be a sketchbook? Then again, why the quill? The best case scenario might be that it might contain both writing and sketches, and we know of at least one other such journal, that kept by Captain's Steward John Messum aboard HMS "Vesuvius" during the Crimean War (1854-55). 

On the other hand, it might contain what might seem to be relatively trivial matter, perhaps some record-keeping of the contents of the Steward's pantry, or -- like the inscrutable "Peglar" papers, a mixture of doggerel verse and cryptic writings. From my own personal perspective, though, even if such a document were most mundane in its entries, each such entry would have one incredibly precious detail: a date. Right now, the lack of any post-1848 timeline is probably the singular most glaring gap in all we know about what Franklin's men did after the desertion of the ships. Were they re-manned? A simple date would tell us so. Abandoned again? When? And, like enormous goalposts, even a tiny handful of such dates would enable use to organize all kinds of other data with much higher accuracy; we would at last begin to know the "lay of the land" (and the water).

And yet, even if it has no information later than the desertion of the vessel, any kind of journal would be a goldmine, the more so if it were Hoar's own. As Franklin's steward, Hoar would have attended him daily, the more so during whatever illness or injury led to his death on June 11th 1847. Indeed, although Jane Franklin described the volume as a "quarto" rather than a folio, this could even be Sir John's long-lost private diary. It certainly fires the imagination!

Every so often, we come upon a document that literally rewrites history -- this newfound folio could well be just such a one -- only time and patient work on its pages will tell.

Friday, November 25, 2022

A Season of Marvels

L to R: Peter Carney, Mary Williamson, Russell Potter and Regina Koellner
For myself and my fellow editors of May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth, it has been a season of marvels, one for which all of us are enormously grateful. Although not all of us were able to be present at every event, we collectively felt and experienced a tremendous outpouring of interest in and support for our book.

It all began in Ottawa on September 26th, with our launch at 50 Sussex Drive at the headquarters of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. It was a special pleasure here to share the event with Matthew Betts and his extraordinary book on HMS Terror; the audience's interest naturally extended to both volumes, as did their thoughtful, well-informed questions.

Hooks and Crookes
Our next event was thousands of miles distant -- at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in the UK. Here, Gina was able to join us (photo above), and our UK friends -- many of whom we'd not seen in two years or more -- were present; curator Jeremy Michell gave us a very fine introduction. Scarcely a day later, three of the four of us were on flights to Dublin, whence we made our way to Athy and this years Shackleton Autumn School. It was a special pleasure to see so many old friends and fellow polar enthusiasts, among them Joe O'Farrell, Bob Headland Rob Stephenson, Geir Kløver, and Medbh Gillard. Our launch there, hosted by our good friends at O'Brien's pub, was also wonderfully enhanced by a resounding version of Lady Franklin's Lament provided by the shantymen of Hooks and Crookes.

Then, in a return to Ottawa, came a further bow for us all. I was deeply honored and gratified to be awarded the Louie Kamookak medal, named after my late friend and Inuit historian, and to welcome Peter, Mary, and Gina as Fellows of the RCGS. As an added bonus, we got to meet Jared Harris, whose wonderful portrayal of Francis Crozier on AMC's The Terror we all admired, along with David Kajganich, the series' writer and showrunner! The gala dinner at the Canadian War Museum was a memorable evening for everyone present.

And so, while we don't have any further events planned at present, we're looking forward to a less far-flung holiday season -- and to those copies of our book that many (including ourselves) will be placing under their Christmas trees this year, lying in wait -- or so we hope! -- to convert more people yet to our wonderful shared obsession.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

A look ahead to events for May We Be Spared ...

Finally, the day draws near! We're happy to announce some of the first few events for May We Be Spared -- watch this page for further details as the dates draw closer.

Our big launch will be at the headquarters of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society at 50 Sussex Drive in Ottawa, on September 26th. We're delighted that this event will also be the launch for Matthew Betts's extraordinary book on HMS Terror -- it's hard to imagine a better pairing. We're also going to be a part of the 2022 Terror Camp online event the weekend before (September 24/25) where I hear we may be joined by several cast members of the show; it will be fascinating, I think, to see these letters paired with some of the actors who portrayed their writers!

Moving right along, I'll be crossing the proverbial pond (my fellow editors being already on the other side) to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, for a talk and presentation as part of their series of Members events (it will also be open to the public, I believe) on October 27th. I have no doubt there'll be the usual gathering at the Trafalgar Tavern after -- we'd better reserve all the tables! 

From there, it'll be over the Irish Sea to Athy, and the 22nd annual Shackleton Autumn School that weekend. This will be the first time it's been held in person in two years, and it will be fantastic to gather again with such excellent friends -- and of course, then retire to O'Brien's Pub across the way. O'Brien's has gracefully agreed to host the official launch, so I have a feeling pints of Guinness will be involved!

We're hoping for an event or two in the US this fall as well -- plans are still being sorted out -- I'll update this post, and/or share details in a new one, as soon as they're firmed up!

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Our youngest correspondents

Among the many correspondents in our forthcoming book of letters, two of the very youngest stand out from all the rest, both for their sincerity and heartfelt feelings, and also for the sweet, childish humor that still shines forth from their carefully-penned missives.

James Fitzjames was so struck by the letters that he enclosed them with one to his sister-in-law Elizabeth Coningham, with this preamble:

"I leave you these two letters from my little friends – as I am sure any-thing that gave me pleasure will gratify you ... perhaps you will think I am foolish to care for the little children’s letters – but so it is – I am as much pleased with their expressions of regard – exaggerated though they be – as I should be with the more studied, but probably not so genuine, effusions of many grown people."

The children in question were Eliza Francis ("Fanny") and Maria Jane Campbell, the daughters of Fitzjames's friend Henry Dundas Campbell, a decorated soldier and later a colonial governor who had befriended Fitzjames early in his career, helping him secure his appointment as Midshipman in 1831. Fanny would have been around twelve years old,  and Maria a year younger. Writing in her best school hand, Fanny expressed her sentiments as well as any adult:

"I am very sorry indeed to hear you are going to leave England so soon we shall think of you when you are far away in the snow and some times when your poor toes are freezing with cold you must think of us as we shall be longing for your return."

Maria's letter was more chatty, expressing the regret that Fitzjames could not visit them again until his return, adding "I hope you will not forget us when you are in among the snow and when you come home you will pay us a nice long visit." She closed her letter "Your ever affectionately and attached friend, Maria Jane Campbell" and then added a curious postscript: "Missie says just as if you care a fig for our attachment to you."

This annoying "Missie" may well have been their older sister Harriet, who would have been about sixteen at that time, just the age for such a jovially mocking riposte. It must surely have greatly amused Fitzjames, who was always prone to jest in prose, and touched him more deeply than these young writers may have realized. He closed his letter to Elizabeth with this salutation to her and William: 
"I think the love of a child is a thing not to be thrown away lightly. 

There are some grown up people too, whose love I would not exchange for any worldly good. And of these I need not say you & William stand far highest in the heart 
of your affectionate

James Fitzjames"

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

The Engines and Engineers of Erebus and Terror

A guest post by Peter Carney

Sketch by John Irving
The steam engines Engines fitted to Franklin’s ships Erebus and Terror have long been a topic of interest to me. They were the subject of my first ever blog post in July 2010. Much of the meagre information available was gleaned from letters from officers of the expedition from the time when the ships were being fitted out at Woolwich and the engines tested in the river Thames, letters that are transcribed in full in our forthcoming book, May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth: Letters of the Lost Franklin Arctic Expedition:

 “The ships are getting on famously – our engine is down alongside. It came drawn by 10 coal black horses & weighs 15 tons.”

- James Fitzjames to John Barrow Jr, before 4 April 1845

 “ Our engine once ran somewhat faster on the Birmingham line. It is placed athwart ships in our afterhold, and merely has its axle extended aft, so as to become the shaft of the screw. It has a funnel the same size and height as it had on the railway, and makes the same dreadful puffings and screamings, and will astonish the Esquimaux not a little.”

-  John Irving to Catherine Irving [sister-in-law], 16 May 1845

There are, of course, many further questions which I hope the Parks Canada underwater archaeology unit will be one day able to answer: Were they fitted with Stephenson’s link valve gear? This important mechanism allowed the cut-off of steam admitted to the cylinder to be minutely controlled for best efficiency or maximum power. Did they employ Isaac Babbitt’s patent bearings? -- a development which increased by more than tenfold the mileage a locomotive could do before its axle bearings needed overhaul. Was the supporting structure made of wood or cast iron?

The rich trove of new material assembled for May we be spared to meet on Earth, fascinating as it is, doesn't offer any further answers to these questions. They are frankly not the sort of details that departing explorers would put in their last letters to their families and loved ones. However, and perhaps even more interestingly, they do provide an insight into the personalities of the two men charged with the care and operation of the steam engines and they highlight the contrasting attitudes which the two captains held with regard to both the engines and to the engineers.

Franklin was certainly forward looking in his enthusiasm for steam power:

 “I meant to have had the steam up here to see that all was right – but we really could not at present spare either the space or time. We are satisfied however that all is right and kept in order by the Engineer and it is my intention to take the first opportunity of our being beset to get the steam up, and certainly have every thing ready for its immediate use by the time we reach Lancaster Sound. We find our Engineer Mr Gregory a good & valuable man – and willing to do anything required of him.”

- John Franklin to Edward Parry, 10 July 1845

This “good & valuable man” was Engineer, First class, John Gregory.

John Gregory was not a Navy man and nothing suggests he had ever been to sea before he joined the expedition. Instead he had been employed by Maudslays, the firm contracted to supply and fit the engines for Franklin’s ships. No doubt he was supremely competent in his trade and highly thought of by his employer to be entrusted with such an important task.

Gregory’s sole surviving letter to his wife, sent from the Whale Fish Islands, contains a detailed and well written account of the voyage so far with affectionate greetings and thoughts for the children. The elegant yet easily readable handwriting is particularly noteworthy. 

The fraying folds in the paper and the patches of discolouration tell the poignant story of this letter being passed through many pairs of hands across the generations of his family beginning with his wife and the five children he left behind.

In March of 2021 it was announced that a team led by Douglas R. Stenton had matched DNA extracted from human bones found in previous years on King William Island to living descendants of John Gregory in South Africa. This is the first time that the remains of an expedition member have been positively identified.

Crozier’s feelings towards steam stand in contrast with those of his commander:

“how I do wish the Engine was again on the Dover line, & the Engineer sitting on the top of it, he is [a] dead and alive wretch full of difficulties and is now quite dissatisfied because he has not the leading stoker to assist him in doing nothing...”

            - Francis Crozier to Ann, wife of James Clark Ross, 12 July 1845

The “dead and alive wretch” in this case was Engineer, First class (acting), James Thompson

Thompson’s letters to his brother Charles are not as elegantly worded as Gregory’s example but the excellent handwriting shows he was a diligent student, except with regard to punctuation.  His letters are packed with myriad details of the voyage to date from the quantities of foodstuffs provided each day to descriptions of the inhabitants of the Whale Fish islands. Indeed, Thompson comes across as one of the more compassionate observers of the Inuit who were encountered, referring to them as “A harmless set of People and very honest.” Gregory, too, describes them in similar terms so perhaps both engineers’ working class roots gave them a greater affinity for a people who led a precarious struggle for existence.

It seems that Crozier's lack of enthusiasm for the new technology of steam power was shared by many in the Navy.

The tablet from the Greenwich memorial
The Engineers of Erebus and Terror were highly skilled artisans and plausibly had a higher standard of general education than their fellow Warrant Officers the Boatswain and Carpenter in each ship. However, many officers in the Naval hierarchy were cut from an older type of cloth. Enthralled by the sublime beauty of the sailing warship and the glorious memories of Nelson's victories, some viewed steam engines as infernal machines and their operators as uncouth tradesmen. This attitude seems to have prevailed when the monument in the chapel of the Naval College at Greenwich was erected in 1858.

The names of all the commissioned officers are inscribed on this monument, as well as the four other warrant officers. It therefore seems to me unjust to me that it omits the names of John Gregory and James Thompson, the engineers of Erebus and Terror.