This month, the infamously ill-fated Franklin Expedition returned to the headlines with the discovery of the missing HMS Terror. The find follows the 2014 identification of the HMS Erebus, the other vessel in the doomed search for the Northwest Passage, a fatal voyage that left gruesome tales of cannibalism, lead poisoning, and slow, frozen deaths in its wake. Since the disappearance of Sir John Franklin’s 129-member crew, last seen by European eyes in 1845, art has played a major role in interpreting their legacy, either as a grisly catastrophe or an act of heroism.
If you walk through Waterloo Place in London today, you can still see Franklin himself standing eight feet tall, his jaw chiseled, his eyes looking toward some unseen shore. Below that statue by Matthew Noble is a rather formal relief of Franklin’s 1847 funeral out in the Arctic, his men rigidly watching his coffin, while below reads the words:
To the Great Arctic Navigator and His Brave Companions Who Sacrificed Their Lives in Completing the Discovery of the North West Passage.
It’s a great line of lies, just like that romanticized depiction of his burial. And this is far from the only bit of public art propaganda installed after the Terror and Erebus disappeared. A statue of Franklin in his hometown of Spilsby, England, proclaims “Sir John Franklin – Discoverer of the North West Passage,” while his cenotaph in Westminster Abbey includes a verse by Lord Tennyson calling him a “heroic sailor-soul,” alongside a declaration that he and his crew died while “completing the discovery of the North-West Passage.”
These artistic homages to Franklin and his men were all spurred by an imperial desire to confirm that the expedition — staffed with elite members of the Royal Navy, significantly financed by the country, and covered with great emotion in the press — sustained rather than eroded British superiority. Lady Jane Franklin was also driven to secure her status as the widow of a hero. Andrew D. Lambert writes in The Gates of Hell: Sir John Franklin’s Tragic Quest for the North West Passage that the erection of the London monument in 1866 “enabled Jane to hard-wire John Franklin into the Victorian consciousness. It was an impressive epitaph, and impressively wrong.”
A troubling 1854 report by John Rae cited Inuit witnesses who found emaciated remains, and evidence in the “the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of the kettles” that “our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource — cannibalism — as a means of prolonging existence.” This went completely against the colonial vision of the virtuous British explorer. Charles Dickens himself wailed his disbelief at the men resorting to cannibalism through a succession of articles in Household Words, claiming the Inuit were “a gross handful of uncivilized people, with a domesticity of blood and blubber.” He even decided to stage a play titled The Frozen Deep, created with Wilkie Collins, that dramatized an idealized view of the expedition.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Frederic Edwin Church did a bit of augmenting to his large-scale Arctic landscape “The Icebergs.” When he unveiled it in New York on April 24, 1861, he attempted to link it to the recent outbreak of the Civil War with the patriotic title “The North.” Upon the painting’s journey to England in 1863, Church decided to connect it to Franklin instead, adding a mangled, cross-shaped mast in the foreground, the only human presence in the eerie frozen landscape. Nature, in his interpretation, dominates our feeble attempts at conquering its savage terrain.
And then there was Edwin Henry Landseer. His lurid 1864 painting “Man Proposes, God Disposes” featured two jubilantly ravenous polar bears gnawing on human bones amid the ruins of a ship and objects like a broken telescope. At the time, the image was easily identifiable as the remains of the Franklin expedition; “Bones — no need to ask which bones,” the Times quipped at its reveal. Many thought Landseer, better known for his paintings of beautiful dogs, was perhaps losing his marbles. It’s still considered an artwork of bad luck, some say cursed, and is draped in a Union Jack flag during tests where it hangs at the University of London’s Royal Holloway.
By 1874, England had more or less come to grips with the national failure of owning the Arctic. “The North-West Passage,” completed by John Everett Millais that year, has an old sailor seated at a desk, his navigational maps strewn before his wrinkled hands. “It might be done and England should do it,” read Millais’s accompanying inscription.
The Northwest Passage wasn’t completely navigated by ship until a 1903–06 expedition by Roald Amundsen. Alas, he was Norwegian.