Friday, April 13, 2012

Only Known Photo of Lady Jane Franklin

A few years ago -- in May of 2008, to be precise -- I was in Philadelphia along with many Arctic historians and writers for the "North by Degree" conference hosted by the Academy of Natural Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. By good fortune, I found myself at the same bed-and-breakfast as my good friends Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert, and so we had ample time before and after each batch of conference sessions to talk about our shared passion for all things Polar.  Kari was there to give a talk about some of the remarkable parallels between her mother Lady Marie Herbert's experiences and those of Josephine Peary, and after the conference was off on a research trip to see some Peary materials in Maine. This was all in preparation for her work, Polar Wives, which has now come to fruition, and which traces the careers of many of the women who supported their husbands' Arctic and Antarctic endeavors, whether from home or from a tent pitched in the midst of a howling gale on a rocky beach in Greenland.

Lady Jane Franklin was to be, and is, one of the subjects of Kari's book, and one afternoon in Philadelphia, she mused aloud that there must be, somewhere in some archive, a photograph of her -- why had none ever come to light?  I took this as a personal challenge, and set myself to find one; it was only many months later, by the good chance of putting the right keywords into the right database, that I found just such a photograph at George Eastman House, which has one of the best collections of nineteenth-century (and later) photos of any institution in the world.  It was, like the famous "purloined letter" in the Poe story, hidden in plain sight -- in the center of the frame in one of the stereoviews of Yosemite taken by Carleton E. Watkins, and commercially reproduced by him and succeeding stereoview publishers.  Doubtless there are hundreds of copies -- one of them has recently been scanned and uploaded to the Wikipedia -- but no one had really realized the rarity of the image itself. George Eastman house, happily, has Watkins's original glass plate negatives for his Yosemite views, which can be enlarged much more than the printed cards, and here we can finally see Lady Franklin -- and Sophia Cracroft -- in a camera's eye.

Lady Franklin has a most curious expression -- she seems to be positively beaming good cheer -- but is wearing some sort of Victorian-era hood or wimple that -- for me at least -- brings to mind Sally Field as the Flying Nun.  Traveling costumes for women from this period were odd affairs, to be sure, but Lady F. seems to be sporting one of the odder ones.  Between Jane and Sophia there is the somewhat blurred or  obscured visage of one of their guides, and then we see Sophia's face, everything that Jane's is not -- sober, severe almost, looking directly into the camera.  A few feet further we see two more guides, one of whom is apparently picking his teeth with a twig -- seated at the foot of a tree, the bark of which has been cut with an axe, possibly as a sort of blaze for the trail.  Yosemite, in the 1860's, was a fairly rugged destination, and for Jane and Sophia -- who rarely traveled without some sort of entourage -- this was roughing it.

The larger frame shows two other figures, a man who is seeking to blow a fire aflame at left, and at right, a jaunty figure sporting a cap with a bill and peak, a pair of braces, and writing or drawing on what looks like an oversize sketchpad.

The visit by these two women to the site seems to have had a lasting impression on the nomenclature of the place; though credited in the photo as "Moss Rock" this almost surely the same as the modern "Lady Franklin Rock," though exactly when, and by whom, the change was made is unclear.  It has for a long time been a favored place to take a photo of the Vernal Falls from -- though much less often photographed itself.  The identities of the guides here are unknown to me; I would certainly be interested to hear from anyone who can tell me more about them, and about this visit.  All I have is this note from a modern guidebook, which says of Lady Franklin Rock: "So named because that distinguished lady visited the Yosemite in 1859, and being very feeble at the time, was carried up to this rock by the guides on a chair, and from here she viewed the fall."

PHOTO CREDIT: George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography


  1. Excellent spot, Russell - well done!

  2. Brilliant scoop. Well done indeed!

  3. Thanks, Glenn and Peter!

    I should add that, despite what the guidebook says, Lady Franklin was traveling in the Near East and Europe in 1859, so the date must be wrong -- others sources say 1863, which seems more probable.

  4. This is stupendous! Hat's off to you, Russell!

  5. AT LAST! well done and thanks for sharing this!

  6. Incredible!! Really amazing.

    I´ve just found this other image (not a photograph) which i´ve never seen before, it cames from Tasmania. It is an alleged visit of Lady anf John Franklin to the defense line called "dogline" which pretend to prevent the guards of the escaping prisoners in the isthmus at Eaglehawk Neck.

    But the most amazing thing is this commentary below in this same web page which I copy below where they talk about a person called Billy Hunt, could he be your ancestor?:

    "Some of the escape plans were quite bizarre. In one case, the convict Billy Hunt disguised himself as a kangaroo and attempted to hop across the Neck. His plan was brought to a sudden halt when one of the soldiers decided to shoot the large boomer. Billy was forced to reveal his true identity."

  7. Thanks. And that's a great story about Billy Hunt, thought I doubt it was my ancestor; whatever other chaos was going on in the colony, careful records and carefully-spelt names seem to have been something of an obsession.

    The idea of a photograph surfacing from the Franklins' years in Tasmania is not too far-fetched -- though the science was new, many in the colony took an interest -- Sir John himself, apparently -- and it's quite possible a photo of he or his wife might have been taken.

  8. Uuups! I am really sorry. I´ve confused Hunt with Brunt. However it could have been a great coincidence, indeed.

    There is another Lady Franklin Rock in the Fraser River. I suppose that the name came from the stay of Lady Franklin and Sophie Cracroft on february and march of 1861 in New Westminster with the Governor James Douglas. There are several photographs of the Douglas family taken since and a lot more of that time of the region and its people. It seems that some photographers land there at 1858. I suppose that such a visit would be an important event for the inhabitants, and perhaps another photo arise from there. I´ve been searching among them here:

    and here:

    and here:

    But I´ve just only found nothing, nothing and nothing, though i recognize that i´ve got little patience.