Friday, June 26, 2009

Landseer Lecture

I just arrived back late last night from my lecture on Sir Edwin Landseer's "Man Proposes, God Disposes," currently on display at the Yale Center for British Art. It was well-attended, and the audience was wonderfully diverse in every sense -- in age, in background, in interests, in expertise. I was especially delighted that my partner Karen Carr and my daughter Caeli were there, along with my dear friends Mary Cappello and Jean Walton (thanks, Jean, for the photo!). This painting, along with the rest of the Royal Holloway's touring collection, has been expertly hung and lighted, and has never looked better. It's also worthy of note that the frames, which were originally all glazed and made with specially-designed latches for removing and cleaning the glass, are now hung almost entirely unglazed, which offers a view long unavailable in their original home. Landseer's carnivorous canvas finally gets its due.

There is an enduring anxiety about these bears, one which was the subject of several questions after my lecture. One person in attendance, an alumna of Royal Holloway, offered her recollection that the painting was hung with a Union Jack -- reversed -- during exams, as though the mirror image would better defeat the harmful rays of the naval ensign in the painting. She vividly recounted the anxiety of those who sat near. What horror still exuded from them nearly 150 years after they were painted? I offered my own view that the bears, in all their muscular horror, were more or less stand-ins for fears of cannibalism.

And yet whether or not these bears were simply representatives of animal appetite -- or else subconscious representatives of the upgorged horror of the "last resource" was a matter of debate. Scott Wilcox, the YCBA's curator of graphic arts and an expert on panoramas, asked whether the bears might not offer the relief of resolution -- after all, if 'the bears did it,' then there was no further need to probe the scene in search of something far worse. Ultimately, many present felt that the bears could be both a potential guard against far worse images, and an embodiment of the very fear thus allayed -- and I heartily agreed with this view.

But why not judge for yourselves? This magnificent show runs through July 26th, and New Haven is an easy day-trip for anyone in the greater New York or greater Boston areas. These paintings, as a collection, will not travel again soon, and you may be surprised to find that even the most difficult to please of museum goers -- children -- will at once be drawn to Landseer's portrait of these astonishing creatures, and will be led by them through the rest of a gallery filled with an abundance of Victorian riches.

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?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Man Proposes, God Disposes

One of the iconic images of the Arctic Sublime, it was painted by an artist who had never travelled to the north, and whose best-known paintings were of royal dogs and ponies -- Sir Edwin Landseer -- in the strange twilight of his career. When in 1981 it was shown in the United States as part of a Landseer retrospective, New York Times art citic Hilton Kramer singled it out as the most stunning of his works, comparing it with other darkest moments of the Victorian age:
"'Man Proposes, God Disposes'" is Landseer’s 'Dover Beach' and with that painting, at least, he joins the ranks of those disabused Victorian prophets whom we still have ample reason to admire and heed."
As one of the gems of the Royal Holloway Collection at the University of London, it's part of a touring show set up to allow renovations to its original quarters; from now through July 26th this magnificent, unparalleled collection of Victorian art can be seen at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. On June 25th, I'll be giving a gallery talk on Landseer's painting from 12:30 to 1 p.m.

So how did such a seemingly staid and sober artist such as Landseer, who, though renowned for his animal subjects, had always remained with the lines of domestic propriety, come to paint such a monstrous scene? In 1864, McClintock's news of the demise of Sir John Franklin's expedition was still fresh in the air, as was the controversy, ignited ten years earlier, over Dr. John Rae's evidence of cannibalism among Franklin's men. Such dark matter was inconceivable as the subject for a serious painting -- since GĂ©ricault's famous "Raft of the Medusa" (1818-1819) tastes, shall we say, were greatly changed. Maritime tragedies were meant to be seen through a spyglass dimly, distantly awesome and only alluded to by natural features; the storms of human malfeasance could cloud horizons but not confront the viewer's eye. Frederic Edwin Church had struck just the right tone three years earlier with his "Icebergs," which contained a lone, broken mast as a synecdoche of Franklin's tragic end: man made mast.

There's a mast in Landseer's painting too, with tattered remnants of a royal ensign clinging to its side -- but it's what comes before the mast that astounds. Two polar bears, their muzzles rippling with carniverous delight, are sitting down to a feast of dead explorers' bones. The bear on the right tosses a bone from a human ribcage, while on the left a second bear rips at the ensign. At that bear's side lie a broken telescope and lens-cap, its shattered state a metaphor of the blasted vision of the dead. When the painting was first shown in 1864, there could be no doubt of its intended subject. The Times spoke of "bones -- no need to ask whose," while the reviewer for the Illustrated London News was more impressionistic:
"Under the lurid sky of Arctic twilight, among the vast fantastic blocks of ice, green, or of livid pallor, save where faintly flushed with the long, level, rosy ray of the far-off dawn, we see over a hollow a solitary spar; and on the brink of this strange and awful grave -- for those are human ribs protruding, blanched and bare from summer heat or birds of prey."

Many felt it was in poor taste, and some of Landseer's private friends associated it with his increasingly difficult struggle with nervous anxiety. For much of the time before this painting, Landseer had been laboring, long and patiently, on the sculpted lions for the base of Nelson's Pillar in Trafalgar Square. The commission had used so much of his artistic and life-force that he was driven to nightmares, in one of which the lion pinned him to the ground, about to make a man-sized meal of him. Nevertheless, Landseer labored on, and perhaps in "Man proposes" found an outlet for this sense of being warily, wearily pursued by enormously powerful and relentless beasts.

Purchased some years later by Thomas Holloway, the British patent-medicine magnate, it took up a place of honor, as well as of anxeity, in the Picture Gallery in the Founder's Building of the Royal Holloway College. When the hall was used at term time for examinations, students were averse to sitting near it, so much so that it became a tradition for the porters to cover it with a cloth beforehand. And, curiously, it was in this same building that Anne Keenleyside, the forensic pathologist who first confirmed evidence of cannibalism from the bones recovered from NgLj-2 on King William Island, spent a postdoctoral fellowship, passing the hall on her way to and from her research without ever realizing how her work, and Landseer's strange vision, connected.

There are many other reasons to see the Royal Holloway -- Frith's Railway Station and Millais's "Princes in the Tower" among them -- but I would urge anyone who has the opportunity to see the Landseer. These bears do not often travel abroad, and there is nothing quite so chilling as seeing them there before you, only a few animal paces from your heart.

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.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Franklin Daguerreotypes

Among the most well-known images of the Franklin expedition are the daguerreotypes made of him and his senior officers just prior to their sailing in 1845.  And yet, though these photographs, and engravings based upon them, are very widely distributed, few people are familiar with the facts of their production, or know why they were made.  In this post, I'll give a bit of background on them, and show why, even 164 years later, they still have something to reveal to us.

The idea for having these photographs made was quite likely Franklin's own.  He took an interest in this new invention as early as 1840, scarcely a year after it had been announced to the world by Daguerre.  In the annals of the Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science are two letters addressed to Franklin, one by his old friend Dr. John Richardson, and another by one "Dr. Buckland," both from 1840.  Richardson extols this new invention "one of the most remarkable discoveries of modern times," and described the process in some detail.  Dr. Buckland's letter, which was enclosed with an engraving based on a Daguerreotype of Lord John Russell, who calls the process a novelty "not yet made known in London, but of the greatest importance to Science and Art."  He ends his letter with a curious observation: "You are aware that iodine is used in Daguerre's process for getting the solar drawing on his silvered plate. Who could have anticipated that the discovery of a violet-coloured gas in the refuse of kelp would lead to such important results?"

Given that Franklin was aware of this new technology far earlier than most, it's not surprising that he took measures to ensure that a Daguerreian apparatus was included among the instruments brought aboard "Erebus" and "Terror."  Obtaining this equipment was not as easy as it might seem; although Daguerre loudly proclaimed that he had given rights to his invention "to the world," in England the patent rights were apparently reserved.  Only two men, Antoine Claudet and Richard Beard, had had some claim to a license.  Beard, a coal-merchant who had taken to speculating in patents, obtained an interest in an American version of a  Daguerreotype camera, as it was in the United States that many technical hurdles with the process had been overcome.  The standard process was still too slow for portraiture; the sensitivity of the plate had to be increased, and a better means of collecting light devised.  Beard purchased the rights to a camera with a reflecting mirror that accomplished the latter task, and at once set about learning how to use it, taking lessons from John Frederick Goddard, a scientific lecturer at the Adelaide Gallery. Goddard showed Beard how to accelerate the developing process, and early in 1841 he and his partners opened the first photographic studio in London atop the roof of the Royal Polytechnic Institution in Regent Street.

Within a few months, the income from this studio rose to nearly £150 a month, far beyond anything Beard had anticipated, although before long Claudet opened a competing business in a glass house near St. Martin's-in-the-Fields.  When his income from studio portraiture declined, Beard sought out other areas of work, making some early landscapes, as well as journalistic images of everyday life in London for Henry Mayhew's magisterial London Labour and the London Poor.  So it was hardly surprising that, when word went out that a photographic apparatus was wanted for the new Arctic expedition, Beard proffered his services.

Beard's mirror camera had a singular feature which is not widely known: the mirror had a pivot, something like a modern SLR camera, and by turning it, the photographer could record two images on a single oblong plate.  This gave Beard the opportunity to choose the better of the exposures, or -- if both were satisfactory -- provide two Daguerreotypes and double his profit.  Which is exactly what he did with the Franklin images; one set was given to Lady Franklin, and another to the Admiralty.  In nearly every case, the sitter -- to whom photography was something quite new -- held the same static position for both poses.  Only in the case of James Fitzjames is there an obvious difference; in one image he is stern-looking; in the other -- having picked up a brass telescope -- he gives the faintest hint of a smile, the only one among the fourteen sitters.  Sir John Franklin himself looks ill -- he was said to have been recovering from the 'flu -- and uncomfortably stuffed into his uniform, and yet this has remained the iconic image of the man.

Lady Franklin's set eventually has ended up in the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, while the Admiralty's set is on display at the National Maritime Museum

And what can we learn from them?  In my next posting, I'll reveal more; for now, suffice it to say that, with the downturned, shiny brim of the dress hat worn by some officers, there are "reflections" of another kind, images which reveal where the sitters sat during at least some of the session.

After these images were made, the apparatus was stowed aboard "Erebus."  It's possible that at some point in the expedition, images were made with it, although if so they are lost and would likely be damaged beyond recovery if found.  The challenges of sensitizing and exposing a plate, which required (at different stages) vaporizing both iodine and mercury, would have considerable in the Arctic climate; indeed there are no known Daguerreotypes of the frozen regions from this era.  The earliest photographs were to be calotypes, made on paper coated with silver iodide, and in fact among their earliest users was Francis Leopold McClintock -- but I'll save that for a future column.