Romantic Failures in Arctic Exploration: Narratives of Conquest and Masculinity

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Editor’s Note: This is the fifth post in Part III of the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham.

Expeditions to the Arctic were a huge facet of British culture and society in the 19th century. Part of the wider public interest in Arctic visual culture can be attributed to the variety of popular culture and visual media produced by and from these expeditions. Among the many examples were drawings made by the explorer Admiral Sir George Back (1796-1878), some of which were in turn reimagined as large scale, romantic style paintings. Here, romanticism is a style often connected to both the beauty of nature as well as nationalism and cultural pride. One such example is Back’s painting HMS Terror Anchored near a Cathedral like Iceberg in the Waters around Baffin Island (1830s), now housed in the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa. As part of the British Naval Exploring Expedition of 1836-37, Back’s painting, as with the published account that followed, was intended to convey, despite the failure of the expedition, the scale of their successes. Many of the engravings that accompanied Back’s text, like his painting, showed the HMS Terror on Arctic shores, out to sea, or beset by sea ice. Despite the outcomes of the expedition, this imagery nevertheless fostered a masculine, propagandistic narrative of exploration.

However, Back was not the only artist onboard the expedition. Among those who also documented the voyage, was Second Lieutenant Owen Stanley (1811-1850), whose small watercolour sketches and accompanying notes are now housed in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto (and have been fully digitised). In writing this essay I was fortunate to also get to see these sketches first-hand. Many of these images depicted the same events, but could not differ more in their expression and style. Stanley provides insight into the domesticity and daily life onboard the ship, while Back aimed to communicate the power of nature and masculine conquest. By comparing this large scale romantic painting to the onboard journal and sketches made by Stanley on the same expedition, I am interested in the disparity between the promotional image presented to the public versus the private reality of life onboard. 

George Back, HMS Terror Anchored Near a Cathedral like Iceberg in the Waters Around Baffin Island, 1830s. Canadian Museum of History, Ottawa. Public Domain.

Back’s expedition to the Frozen Strait, north of the Hudson Bay, was said to be doomed from the start. Arguably, they set out with too many unachievable goals. The expedition looked to fill-in the final area on the map between Prince Regent’s Inlet and Point Turnagain, to investigate if the Northwest passage could be navigated by larger ships, and to determine whether or not Boothia Felix was a peninsula. The team was not well prepared. Back often lamented in his journals that he’d wished the crew were only navy men, and that they were generally more sociable.1 Following the expedition he wrote in a section titled ‘Characteristics of a British Sailor’:

The want of discipline, and attention to personal comfort, were most conspicuous; and though the wholesome regulations practised in His Majesty’s service were most rigidly attended to in the Terror, yet such was the unsociability, though without any ill-will, that it was only by a steady and undeviating system pursued by the first lieutenant, that they were brought at all together with the feeling of messmates […] had they [the crew] been left to themselves, I verily believe a more unsociable, suspicious, and uncomfortable set of people could not have been found.

Sir George Back, Narrative of an expedition in H.M.S. Terror, undertaken with a view to geographical discovery on the Arctic shores, in the years 1836-37 (London: J. Murray, 1838), p.128-129.

When preparing for the expedition, Back chose to approach through Frozen Straight rather than Welcome Sound. This would be the first of many mistakes. Welcome Sound had much safer waters, and there is a possibility that the expedition could have been successful had Back chosen this alternative route. Aboard the HMS Terror, the ship had been equipped with a new heating technology system that quickly malfunctioned. The system included a wrought iron pipe surrounding the ship full of hot brine, however the heater broke and condensation froze the walls of the ship solid. The Terror was consequently trapped in the ice near the entrance of the Frozen Straight. They remained trapped for 34 days, with Back eventually ordering his men off the ship.

On the 20th of September 1836, a massive storm swept through and split the ice floe that had them trapped, sending ice 18 feet upwards onto the side of the ship. This would have crushed the ship, however there were smaller floes of ice beneath the boat that lifted the vessel up along with the rising ice and ultimately saved it. Eventually the ship was freed, but as they moved forward in their journey, they were later trapped again three miles away from Point Terror. It seemed inevitable that the ship would sink, so emergency plans were made to evacuate the crew if needed. The ship’s supply of food had already been significantly depleted, and one sixth of the crew had fallen ill. The ship was once again freed from the ice and a unanimous vote was taken to turn the ship around and return home. The expedition was planned for 8 months, but 15 months had past by the time the sinking and waterlogged Terror washed up on the shores of northern Ireland in Lough Swilly. 

William Smyth, Perilous position of H.M.S. Terror, Captain Back, in the Arctic Regions in the summer of 1837, mid nineteenth century. Oil on canvas, 83.8 x 121.9 cm. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Caird Fund.

By producing imagery that played into the trope of masculine Arctic conquest, viewers were invited to take part in the thrill of Arctic exploration from the safety of their home country.2 Though the British public was enthralled by the idea of Arctic exploration, the concept of the Arctic landscape was one that they had only been exposed to through popular culture and visual media, such as print publications, paintings, and panoramas, rather than first hand experience. Artists such as Back exaggerated features, such as the dramatization of icebergs, sea ice, and Arctic landscape more generally. Many of these were not accurate studies of what they witnessed, but were instead translated into sublime pictures recognizable to audiences at home. As Eavan O’Dochartaigh writes, many of these pictures of Arctic landscapes “could be easily translated into commodities, from lithographs for a scientific audience to a panorama for the average urban dweller”.3

Back explored this crafted narrative within HMS Terror Anchored Near a Cathedral like Iceberg in the Waters Around Baffin Island which shows a scene from the 1836-37 expedition, while first lieutenant William Henry Smyth (1788-1865) captured the vast peaks of ice encasing the ship in his oil painting Perilous position of H.M.S. Terror, Captain Back, in the Arctic Regions in the summer of 1837 (mid nineteenth century). Smyth was also responsible for many of the engravings reproduced in Back’s published account of the expedition. Perhaps one of the most common tropes was the exaggerated iceberg, which in Back’s oil painting more closely resembles a Gothic cathedral or medieval fortress than a block of ice calved off a glacier. Back’s own written reflections on the Arctic environment appear to reflect this contradictory nature:

Though I had seen vast bodies of ice from Spitzbergen to 150° west longitude, under various aspects, some beautiful, and all more or less awe-inspiring, I had never witnessed, nor even imagined, any thing so fearfully magnificent, as the moving towers and ramparts that now frowned on every side.

Back, Narrative of an expedition in H.M.S. Terror, p.233

The connection to gothic cathedrals in both the title and the representation of arches and architectural features in the iceberg were likely included so as to make the scale and significance of the ice and voyage more relatable to the people at home in Britain. By drawing these connections between the far-flung frozen landscape and important architectural examples back home, Back cemented his expedition as an important part of Britain’s history and culture, introducing nationally recognized motifs into the Arctic landscape. This painting emphasises the romantic beauty of nature, however it omits the aspect of fear. It appears serene, despite the failures of the expedition, and hopeful for a British future in the Arctic.

William Smyth, Completing the snow walls during a heavy gale, c.1838. Engraving.
In George Back, Narrative of an expedition in H.M.S. Terror, undertaken with a view to geographical discovery on the Arctic shores, in the years 1836-37.

By contrast, scenes of the mundane, domestic, and often repetitive daily life of the ships’ crew were included in the sketchbook of Owen Stanley, documenting the Back expedition. Among scenes of the ship trapped in ice, are depictions of sailors and their domestic lives, including hanging laundry on clotheslines,4 and building shelters on the ice out of snow blocks – the latter also appears in Back’s published narrative and Smyth’s engravings.5 Many of these images show how a pursuit labelled as masculine actually consisted of men taking on traditionally feminine duties while onboard. Officers additionally brought framed pictures and dried flowers to decorate their cabins which added to the feeling of home.6 The crew also built community through the division of domestic labour.7 This division included assigning traditionally feminine chores to seamen such as laundry, cleaning, and cooking.

Owen Stanley The Drawings Made by Captain Owen Stanley when on the Arctic Expedition in “HMS Terror”, 1836 – 1837, Watercolour. Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

These sketches made by Stanley offer a more personal and intimate insight into shipboard life alongside sketches of the landscape that show less of an Arctic grandeur, when compared to Back and Smyth’s large scale romanticised depictions of the tumultuous nature of polar exploration. These smaller, more intimate, images were seemingly not intended for publication, and as such were unlikely to have been modified post-creation. Unlike Back’s painting which was intended for a public audience, and therefore had to mould itself to fit the popular visual narrative of the Arctic, Stanley’s sketchbook more freely conveys the realities of an Arctic voyage.


1. Sir George Back, Narrative of an expedition in H.M.S. Terror, undertaken with a view to geographical discovery on the Arctic shores, in the years 1836-37 (London: J. Murray, 1838), p.128-129. See also, Peter Steele, The Man Who Mapped the Arctic: The Intrepid Life of George Back, Franklin’s Lieutenant (Raincoast Books, 2003).

2.  Eavan O’Dochartaigh, Visual Culture and Arctic Voyages: Personal and Public Art and Literature of the Franklin Search Expeditions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022), p. 93-94. DOI: 10.1017/9781108992794. 

3. Ibid, p.30.

4. Mark A. Cheetham, “Storm Clouds, Plague Clouds & Laundry Lines of the 19th Century: Domestic Meteorology Aboard Arctic Voyages from Britain”, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Conference: British Art and Natural Forces, Nov. 2020.

5. Owen Stanley, The Drawings Made by Captain Owen Stanley When on the Arctic Expedition Commanded by Sir George Back in H.M.S. “Terror” 1836 and 1837 (Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto), p. 47. 

6. O’Dochartaigh, Visual Culture and Arctic Voyages, p.98.

7. Ibid.

Feature image: Owen Stanley, H.M.S. Terror, February 22nd 1837. Watercolour on paper. From Owen, Stanley. The Drawings Made by Captain Owen Stanley When on the Arctic Expedition Commanded by Sir George Back in H.M.S. “Terror” 1836 and 1837. Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.
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Eve Bradley

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