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The north-west passage was the unnavigable sea route round North America which was thought to provide a passage to the East. In time, it became synonymous with failure, adversity and death, with men and ships battling against hopeless odds in a frozen wilderness. Millais painted this picture in 1874 when another English expedition was setting off. Previous representations had shown the desolate beauty of the terrain with details such as wrecked ships to underline the futility of man’s ambition. Millais encapsulates the risks of such a voyage primarily through the old seaman, with his grim, distant look and clenched fist.

March 2010