The Arctic Fantasies of Edwin Landseer and Briton Riviere: Polar Bears, Wilderness and Notions of the Sublime
The books include many descriptions of encounters with polar bears. The men were struck by the strong bonds that linked family groups of these animals – especially the hungry females and cubs which were attracted to the ships – but nevertheless killed them without mercy.12 In the American Elisha Kent Kane’s Arctic Explorations in the Years 1853, ’54, ’55, some vignettes depict hunted bears at bay, attempting to resist dogs and spears, but in The Cache Destroyed the animals exact retribution as they raid an expedition’s food store, jeopardising the men’s ultimate survival (figs.3 and 4).13 We also gain an impression of other awe-inspiring sights of the Arctic – looming icebergs, darkness at noon, the aurora borealis – and of the fragility of expeditionary ships which might at any moment be crushed by the ice. James Hamilton’s image in Kane’s book of The Nip off Cape Cornelius Grinnell, Forge Bay shows human enterprise and ambition pitted against the terrible power of the elements, as the men tug desperately to free the ship and pull it to open water, under a menacing sky.14 ‘A Funeral on the Ice’ illustrated Sir Francis M’Clintock’s best-selling The Voyage of the ‘Fox’ in the Arctic Seas (1859, fig.5), the narrative of an expedition which had brought the first firm news of the fate of Franklin and his men. In line with M’Clintock’s emphasis on the religious and patriotic inspiration for his endeavour, it shows the decent Christian burial of a crew member who had been killed in an accident: the orderly rituals of civilised life are, it seems, preserved even in this unearthly and fearful environment, as the strange Arctic phenomenon of theparaselene or false moons arches over the funeral party.15 As we shall see, the finds made by M’Clintock and others of the relics of Franklin’s expedition told a very different story.
16 For Church, the Arctic is the sublime dwelling-place of God, into which humans venture at their peril. He has chosen to depict the light of a glowing sunset, which transfigures the ice with dazzling colours, and makes the sea and sky look dark by comparison, except where the water appears bright green in the shallows. We are given the illusion of actually standing on an iceberg which extends beneath the water, and are dazed by the realistic rendering of an optical impression: strangeness is reinforced by spectacular immediacy.17 To accompany the picture, there was a book written by Church’s friend, the Revd Louis Noble, After Icebergs with a Painter. Noble had accompanied the artist on a boat trip to Newfoundland and Labrador in the summer of 1859 to study the formation and effect of the icebergs close up, and he frequently described the terrible dangers they ran. Yet the tone of the work is ecstatic. The icebergs are constantly on the move, constantly transformed by the fitful light and the dynamic process of dissolution. The sense of flux in nature is modern, even Darwinian. But for Noble and Church, the primary meaning of what they saw was not scientific but transcendental. These ‘shadowy sublimities ... crystalline vessels are freighted with God’s power and glory, and must be reverently and thoughtfully studied ... After all, how feeble is man in the presence of these Arctic wonders’. He ‘may no more lay his hand upon them than the Jew of old might ... upon the ark of the covenant’. Although the ice was ‘perishable as a cloud’, its pure whiteness made them think of Christian redemption through the blood of the Lamb, its jewel-like colours resembled the walls of the New Jerusalem as described in the Book of Revelation. ‘I said aloud but low: “The City of God! The sea of glass! The plains of heaven!”.’18
How to cite
Diana Donald, ‘The Arctic Fantasies of Edwin Landseer and Briton Riviere: Polar Bears, Wilderness and Notions of the Sublime’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013, https://www