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.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating, thank you, Russell. I'm wondering whether any (successful) photographs taken might be the first recorded ones in either polar region, as there's no record of images taken on James Ross's Antarctic voyage (if you accept that Hershel's request to Daguerre to provide one was successful) and the Challenger expedition photographs (first recorded ones of icebergs) post-date the deaths of Franklin expedition members. May be wrong, but ...