Alert and Discovery under Cape Prescott, August 1875
In March 2007 I had the chance to conduct some research into one of two collections of Arctic photographs for the Freeze Frame exhibition on display in the Queen’s House. On conducting initial research I found that the British Arctic Expedition, commanded by Captain George Nares, was generally relegated to a footnote or short paragraph in polar-related publications, or even not mentioned at all. This intrigued me because the Museum holds quite an extensive collection of material relating to this expedition, which ranges from photographic albums, letters and journals to sledges, clothing and even the head of a muskox.
Lady Franklin Sound sledging party outside Discovery, April 1876
The expedition suffered four deaths and returned home at least a year early. However, despite this, over 300 miles of the northern coastline of Ellesmere Island and Greenland was charted, many articles based on meteorological and geological research were published, and a furthest north was achieved – reaching within 400 miles of the North Pole.
As part of the expedition Captain Nares requested photographic equipment for each ship. Thus George White, Assistant Engineer for Alert (1856), and Thomas Mitchell, Paymaster for Discovery (1874), were trained at the Army School of Photography in Chatham in the latest photographic processes.
Mr White and ‘Nelly’ at Alert‘s winter quarters, circa May 1876
The photographs that they took not only document running aground and their encounters with ice floes and bergs but also record the indigenous people of Greenland and the ships’ winter quarters. Cataloguing the photographs was complicated as the three albums (all with identical prints) had different captions that did not always agree and so some detective work was required to identify places and events.
The original photographs were put on display at the Photographic Society of Great Britain exhibition in 1877. Nares recorded in his official report, ‘Mr Mitchell and Mr George White have made a most valuable collection of photographs of subjects connected with arctic life and scenes.’ Importantly, these two amateurs in the field of photography set the precedent for professionals like Herbert Ponting and Frank Hurley in the early 20th century in recording the activities, achievements and polar landscapes for an audience at home.
Late October is not the best time of the year to visit the Isles of Scilly! We went to Tresco hoping that some of the tropical climate, for which the island is known, would be there. Sadly it wasn’t to be.
The weather that first greeted us in Penzance could only be described as atrocious – strong, cold winds and lashing rain. The next morning was cloudy but dry, although rain threatened all day. Armed with tape measure, camera, paper, pen and our waterproofs Mary and I set off for the helipad with some apprehension.
The First view of the Isles of Scilly from the helicopter
Tresco lies about 20 minutes from the mainland and is one of the five larger islands, with St Mary’s, St Martin’s, St Agnes and Bryher. Our first view of the Isles of Scilly revealed an archipelago of low-lying islands, surrounded by clear blue water and interrupted by rocky outcrops. It was easy to see why so many ships had foundered in its waters.
The helicopter coming into land at Tresco helipad
We were met from Tresco helipad by Mike Nelhams, Curator at the Abbey Garden where the Valhalla figurehead collection is displayed. Mike’s 25 years on the island revealed valuable information about the collection‘s history. We were keen to discuss our thoughts and plans with him and Robert Dorrien-Smith, descendant of Augustus Smith and custodian of the Garden today.
Tresco Abbey Garden
Part of the Valhalla collection: the labels have been in place for over 25 years
The size of the collection surprised me. Despite seeing photographs, I expected a sprawling collection of weather-beaten relics but was faced with an attractive diversity of vibrantly painted figureheads and carvings. Setting to work, we measured labels, panels and spaces and took copious photographs and notes to ensure that we had adequate information for work on our return to London. A cold wind blowing off the sea meant that fingers and faces soon went numb, countered by the obligatory warming Cornish pasty in the Garden‘s café.
Time went fast and after a quick amble around the Garden – terraces of exotic plants and breathtaking coastal views – it was time to catch the last helicopter of the day for a rather choppy flight back to Penzance.
During my first few weeks at the Museum the name ‘Valhalla’ kept coming up at various points. As a lifelong Viking fan, I was excited by the prospect of a collection of Norse artifacts, perhaps even a great ship, secreted somewhere in the Museum’s stores. Some weeks later, I found out that Valhalla was an intriguing collection of ships’ figureheads on Tresco in the Isles of Scilly.
Valhalla figurehead collection on Tresco, Isles of Scilly
Valhalla consists of some 50 wreck mementoes on display in Tresco Abbey Garden. The figureheads and carvings have mainly washed up or been salvaged from ships wrecked in the notorious waters around the islands. In the mid-19th century, Augustus Smith began collecting them after agreeing a 99-year lease on all of the Isles of Scilly, off the Cornish coast. Ownership of the collection was transferred to the National Maritime Museum in 1979.
‘Golden Lion’ figurehead possibly from a vessel called Lion
Fish figurehead, traditionally known as the ‘Dolphin’
The figureheads consist of animals: a salmon, lion, eagle and ‘dolphin’, and people: Tsar Alexander I, Friar Tuck, a Scottish ‘chieftain’ and a ‘puritan lady’ as well as ships’ name boards, stern decoration, lifebuoys, cannon and an anchor or two. Many are from named ships while the identity of others went down with the vessel. Most have been beautifully restored and remain gilded, brightly coloured and alive, to be stumbled across by visitors to the Garden.
Figurehead from the Liverpool tea-clipper Friar Tuck (1856)
Although the figureheads are doing very well, we were tipped off a couple of months ago that the accompanying labels and interpretative panels had seen better days. Suspecting that they had been in place for a good 25 years or so, it was obvious that we needed to replace them. This presented the exciting opportunity to reinterpret the collection and carry out new research on the objects and their identity. Having never seen the collection, we first needed to visit Tresco. So Exhibitions Manager Mary Webb and I booked our train, hotel and helicopter(!) tickets and looked forward to a trip to Valhalla…
Back home in Edinburgh, after finishing my Caird Short-term Research Fellowship at the National Maritime Museum, I thought that I would say some more about Qalasirssuaq, the male Inuit from Cape York, Greenland, whose intriguing portrait – Qalasirssuaq (Erasmus Augustine Kallihirua), 1851 – I told you about in my first blog entry in August.
Connected to this portrait is another painting from the NMM’s collections: Thomas Sewell Robins’s HMS ‘Assistance’ in the Ice (1853), which shows men at work on the ice in front of a ship.
HMS ‘Assistance’ in the Ice by Thomas Sewell Robins, 1853.
The inscription on the painting’s gilded frame reads: ‘H.M.S Assistance. 1850. Brought Kallihura to England’. This inscription refers to Qalasirssuaq, whose first experience of British society was on board the HMS Assistance – commanded by Erasmus Ommanney – in search of John Franklin’s lost expedition. In the summer of 1850 HMS Assistance anchored at Cape York, where Qalasirssuaq joined the expedition as guide, but how did Qalasirssuaq experience the micro-, all-male version of British society on board Ommanney’s ship?
The Caird Library holds a copy of P. O’Brien’s Arctic Miscellanies (London: Colburn & Co., 1852, 2nd ed.), which is a collection of articles from the Aurora Borealis, a newspaper written by the men on the expedition. This newspaper features a letter to the editor from Qalasirssuaq. Although the truthfulness of this correspondence needs further investigation – at the very least Qalasirssuaq must have had an interpreter as ghost-writer – the letter might still offer some insights into the young Greenland Inuit’s thoughts. Qalasirssuaq questioned the nature and purpose of Britain’s exploration of the Arctic – just as I do in my research today. In some respects, Qalasirssuaq seemed to be asking: if England is so great, why did you leave?
‘You speak of a country, which you always call “our beautiful England;” you say it abounds in pussis [seals], narwhals, and tuktuk [deer] and in everything a man wants; notwithstanding its beauty and abundance, you leave that country for these bleak, and, as you are pleased to term them, desolate regions [...] you have come to save a great chief [Franklin], who, with his companions, has been wandering about these terrific seas for the last six winters [...] what could have induced them to come to our land of snows and everlasting ice?’ (O’Brien 1852: 90)
I would like to thank all the wonderful people at the National Maritime Museum for their assistance and for the great time that I had in Greenwich during my Caird Short-term Research Fellowship.
From the terraces of the Getty Research Institute high up in the Santa Monica Mountains, elevated above all traffic noise, you can – on a clear day – take in breathtaking views of the whole panorama of Los Angeles towards the Pacific coast and San Pedro Bay.
In fact, if you were a scientifically minded nineteenth-century traveller, this would probably be the point where you would want to get out your camera obscura to appreciate the scene in all its clarity. You may, also, have your pocket sextant to hand, as well as your watch and telescope, your pencil and paper; all the equipment that would enable you to call yourself a topographer, serving the great goal of mapping the world. But for a split second, though, the surrounding landscape and the lavish travertine of the Getty buildings may dazzle you into thinking you were somewhere else, somewhere in the Mediterranean, ripe with classical antiquity and poetic associations for the European artist. And the proximity of the Getty Villa, a building inspired by the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum and famously filled to the brim with antiquities, may further your confusion.
A topographical view of Varigotta, a small village in the province of Genoa, by Edward William Cooke, 1845. This drawing was made during Cooke’s first Mediterranean tour of 1845-46.
At the beginning of October 2008, I was invited to the Getty Research Institute to represent the National Maritime Museum’s Centre for the Study of Art and Travel (CART) by giving a paper at a symposium on Sir William Gell, topographer and artist, who helped pioneer travel and antiquarianism in the Greek part of the Ottoman Empire in the early years of the nineteenth century. The seminar was held on the occasion of an exhibition on the Society of Dilettanti, a group famously obsessed with travel in the Mediterranean and all things ancient.
What an appropriate place for an academic event like this, fascinating in its unexpectedly surreal merger of science and art, past and present.