Sir Edwin Landseer's Man Proposes, God Disposes: and the fate of Franklin.

Author:Moore, Andrew
Position:John Franklin - Critical essay

This essay is a discussion of the interaction between the visual and literary arts in the 19th century in relation to the failed expedition to the North-West passage in 1845 under the command of Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) and the disappearance with all hands of his two ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The essay in particular discusses the painting Man Proposes, God Disposes (Pl 1) by Sir Edwin Landseer and its relationship with the discovery of the fate of this expedition in 1859. The subject was uppermost in the minds of the Victorian public for much of the second half of the 19th century and captured the imagination in ways which are unimaginable now. Interest in Franklin's fate was unfailing for 20 years after his disappearance as repeated attempts were made to rescue the 129 men or, failing that, at least to recover their bodies and give them a Christian burial. It was not until 1859, however, that the fate of the expedition was made known after the Irish-born Royal Navy officer, Francis Leopold McClintock (1819-1907) (Pl 2), commander of the ship the Fox, discovered the crews' remains and published his findings. His book about the voyage (1) was to have a profound influence on literary and artistic production for the remainder of the century.

Man Proposes, God Disposes is probably the most significant artwork which was influenced by the book. This literary source, with its matter-of-fact discovery of the grisly remains of the crew, is integral to the painting's creation. This essay proposes to identify and analyse three key aspects of the painting which have been drawn from the book and also discuss the critical reception to the painting and venture an interpretation of it. The features connected with the book are: in setting the scene, ie the discovered remnants of two crewman in the Erebus boat (2) found by McClintock in 1858; secondly, the itemising of relics recovered from this boat, three of which are utilised by the artist in the painting; and finally (and most controversially) in providing the testimony that wild animals were in the vicinity of the boat, and thereby establishing the fate of the last crewmembers as having provided food for ravaging polar bears. Landseer's skill was in drawing out these factors and composing a visual narrative which adheres closely to the established facts of the fate of Franklin uncovered by McClintock.

The Voyage of the Fox was published by John Murray in November 1859 (the firm was often used to recount expeditions by Royal Navy personnel), and strong sales of the book continued for several years afterwards, boosted by foreign editions. It remains a classic account of polar exploration and in the 1860s out-sold works by Thackeray and Dickens. (3) Such was its popularity that even a children's edition was brought out in 1865. (4) Furthermore contemporary illustrated journals in the UK and the USA wasted no time in publishing extracts. These included Cornhill Magazine, Blackwood's Magazine, with the Illustrated London News and Harper's Weekly (Pl 3) printing extracts with the inclusion of engravings showing scenes from the book and itemising various objects recovered from the failed expedition. These journals had an important role in disseminating the facts established by McClintock's discoveries and in doing so created a new cultural genre which was both regenerative and self-perpetuating, inspiring the visual and literary arts.

Setting the scene

The painting depicts two polar bears tearing apart a heap of debris, with the right-hand bear with a human rib in its mouth (5). The debris is a wooden boat, which had been dragged across the desolate King William Island (6) after its crew had abandoned the vessel HMS Erebus, which with its sistership HMS Terror had become locked in ice in the North West passage. (7) The prow of the boat is shown on the far left of the canvas while its mast splits the picture in two. The artist has used a theatrical device of dual light sources: the foreground on the left shows the tip of an iceberg lit from above, whereas the right-hand side of the painting has a strange, dull nocturnal light the source of which (perhaps the polar midnight sun) is shielded from view by an indistinct heap of debris. Landseer draws on McClintock's book as source of visual inspiration in this respect when McClintock described the environmental conditions accompanying the funeral of one of his crew in the North-West passage in December 1857:

Dark dreary depth of Arctic winter; the death-like stillness, the intense cold, and threatening aspect of a murky, overcast sky; and all this heightened by one of those strange lunar phenomena ... The misty atmosphere lent a very ghastly hue to this singular display ... (8) Landseer has evidently picked up on the description of the 'murky sky' and a 'strange lunar phenomena'. Although The Voyage of the 'Fox' in the Arctic Seas includes an engraving illustrating the funeral, with a cruciform star formation bordered by a circle of light, now understood as being 'mock moons' orparaselenae, (9) Landseer instead drew upon the literary description of this phenomenon. This lunar effect was picked up by FG Stevens writing in the Athenaeum in 1864 after he witnessed the painting at the Royal Academy (10) during its first public exhibition. The critic drew attention to the painting's 'arctic moon':

Over all is a greenish light of an arctic moon, a purple veil of mist is drawn aside ... as if a secret were displayed, and in order that we might see what became of our long-lost countrymen ... (11) Locating the Erebus boat

In setting the scene, Landseer draws specifially upon a section of McClintock's text in which a search-party led by Lt Hobson, second in command on the Fox, encounters a whaleboat from the ship HMS Erebus. (12) Indeed this dramatic discovery was illustrated in Harper's Weekly magazine in October 1859 (Pl 3) with the engraver rendering the look of shock on the faces of Hobson's search-party. In the following three passages of text McClintock (13) recounts the progress of Hobson's men across the west coast of King William Island. The first point of relevance to the painting is the sighting of tracks of polar bears in the snow, which therefore provides the artist with his culprits:

The coast we marched along was extremely low a mere series of ridges of limestone shingle, almost destitute of fossils. The only tracks of animals seen were those of a bear and a few foxes--the only living creatures a few willow grouse ... The author then relates the discovery of the Erebus whale boat:

Early in the morning of the 30th May we encamped alongside a large boat another melancholy relic which Hobson had found ... [FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

This boat, a 28-ft-long vessel, (14) was attached to a snow-sledge made of solid oak planks, and the hull contained the skeletons of two crew members. The level of dispassionate factual recording is shown with the author describing the construction of this boat (as well as a sketch of its prow showing an inscription which indicated that it was built in...

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