The Arctic in the British Imagination, 1818-1914

[Studies in Imperialism]

Robert G. David

Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter


Robert G. David's new study of the curious and vital place of the Arctic in the mental landscape of Britain seeks to address what may well be one of the quintessential conundra of British cultural history: Why, given the enormous risk and negligible prospect of material gain, was the quest for the Northwest Passage pursued so doggedly (and supported by the public so avidly) for so many years? The knights of Monty Python's round table, interrogated at the Bridge of Death, give better reasons for seeking the holy grail than have generally been offered for this costly obsession, which consumed millions of pounds and hundreds of lives, and ended in the long drawn-out tragedy of the final Franklin expedition. Francis Spufford's I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (1997), the last attempt at an understanding of the Arctic and Antarctic passions, offered few answers, spending most of its energy offering an elaborate apologia for RF Scott's last expedition. The role of the polar regions in British arts and visual culture received very little attention in Spufford's book; if the ideology of Arctic exploration was left blankly unaccounted for, its role in the imagination was even less clear.

Mr David's book does a great deal to remedy this lack, and the range of chronology and media covered is impressive: easel paintings, panoramas, dioramas, tableaux vivant, museum exhibitions, plays, newspapers, engravings, and children's books from a period of almost a hundred years all fall under his rubric. In numbers and persistence alone, the Arctic emerges as a kind of cultural constant, returned to again and again both in act and representation. The practice of the Arctic commanders, within days of returning home, of making arrangements with publishers (traditionally, John Murray), engravers, and panoramists almost before their ships are unloaded and the crews paid, emerges as part of a symbiotic relationship between the public and the explorer, each of them very much in need of the other. Mr David's analysis of how this process was amplified and capitalized upon by the illustrated press in the latter half of the nineteenth century is forms the basis of the book's strongest chapter, "News from the Arctic." Ample illustrations document the vital role of the press -- particularly the Illustrated London News -- in forming and maintaining the public's interest in Arctic exploration.

The interplay between such mass-reproduced depictions of the Arctic as appeared in the illustrated press and popular engravings and the fine arts is somewhat less directly addressed in Mr David's book, partly on account of their isolation in disjunct chapters. That the book is organized by media, rather than by chronology or theme, is to be regretted; it hinders the development of a fully synthetic understanding of the relationship of the multiple media in question, as well as of the development and change in the ideology of the Arctic over time. The chapter on "Images of the Arctic," for instance, while it offers a fresh consideration of the neglected work of Julius VanPayer, and a detailed discussion of W.H.J. Browne's remarkable portfolio of Ten Coloured Views of the Arctic (1850), does not address how these images are related to the earlier Arctic sublime of Romantic painters such as Friedrich; neither does it relate these images to those in the popular press, except as the press is taken as a benchmark of the relative popularity of subject-matter. Such data, indeed, needs to be used more cautiously -- in the age of the the lending library and the cheap reprint, the particular prominence of one or another subject from year to year may not necessarily be an accurate guide to the public taste of the moment.

The question is, in any case, greatly complicated by the prominence during this very period of mass media, such as the panorama, diorama, and moving panorama, which have no modern corollaries, and whose popularity (and staying power) were often far greater than anything in the printed word, or an engraved scene. For those with limited literacy or a shortage of pocket-change, the chance to stand in the gallery of a panorama for a mere 2d. was far more attractive than a magazine, a single issue of which might set them back several times that price. Where attendance figures are available, there is a very strong indication that panoramas took in a far larger audience than the circulation of even the most popular periodicals, the more so in the provinces where the cost of a tax stamp had to be added to the latter. Travelling panorama proprietors, such as Laidlaw, Gompertz, or the phenomenally successful Messrs. Marshall, often toured nearly year-round, offering their views to thousands of new viewers each week. Some of these shows, such as Gompertz's, seem to have toured on and off for as long as twenty years, until interest in the subject, and/or the paint on the canvas, were utterly exhausted. To his credit, Mr David is attentive to the role of these panoramas in the dissemination of notion of the Arctic, but the space they are given -- one sub-section of the chapter "Exhibiting the Arctic," is rather too confined to address them in any detail. Of the more than two dozen Arctic panoramas and dioramas staged during this period, he mentions only eight, and gives detailed analysis of only three. It is, to be sure, a difficult area, since so few representations of these shows have survived, and all of the originals are lost, but a more thoroughgoing account would have been invaluable.

Some attention is also given, in the same chapter, to the practice of exhibiting Arctic natives, often placed in a facsimile of their indigenous surroundings. Again, while Mr David is attentive to the ideological issues raised, and the misapprehensions perpetuated, by some of these shows, there is not enough space in which to fully address the implications of such exhibitions. The appearance of an Inuit family in London in 1854, for instance, is described without any mention of the fact that the adults in this group, Ebierbing and Tookoolito, were later to be among the best-known and longest serving Inuit guides of the succeeding two decades, working for years with Charles Francis Hall and Frederick Schwatka, and appearing in later exhibitions in the United States, both at Barnum's American Museum and at Boston's botanical gardens. The discussion of museum and zoological exhibitions which follows, on the other hand, is more substantial; by addressing both exhibitions of human artifacts and Arctic flora and fauna, Mr David adds considerably to our understanding of this aspect of the Arctic fascination, and Hagenbeck's combination of the methods of the three-dimensional diorama with those of the zoological garden in his living Arctic dioramas receives welcome attention.

The two remaining chapters address the role of newspapers and juvenile literature in forming popular notions of the Arctic, and their role in shoring up the reputation of the explorer as hero. Mr David draws here on the well-known work of Beau Riffenburgh, but he also extends Riffenburgh's analysis by paying more attention to the particular role of the illustrated press in this area. He is particularly effective when discussing the treatment accorded to expeditions later in the nineteenth century, such as those of Nares, Lonsdale, and Nansen, and his examination of the use of the Arctic in advertisements is by far the most engaging -- and often quite funny -- section of the book. The (beautifully engraved) vision of the aurora borealis spelling out CADBURY'S, taken from an 1896 issue of the Graphic. is the most striking of these, though again one wishes more time and space had been taken on the subject. If it had, we might have learned more about how Booth's gin and Borden's "meat biscuit" pioneered the sponsor-driven Arctic expedition, or read of Dr. Kane's endorsement of the powdered milk made by the American Solidified Milk Manufactory.

As with the other chapters, most of these shortcomings stem from the overambitious chronological reach of Mr David's study. Had he chosen to examine only the 1850's, or only the 1890's, he would have already had an amount of material more than substantial enough for a book-length treatment. As a result of his endeavor to cover nearly a century of the Arctic fascination, he gives us, not a detailed map of a single field of ice, but the tips of numerous icebergs. The advantage of this approach is its historical reach; its disadvantage is that there is little time or space for the kind of intensive, close analysis which might have yielded a deeper understanding of the ideological and aesthetic proclivities of the British fascination with the Arctic. Indeed, though the title is announced as one of a series of "Studies in Imperialism," the broader theoretical goal of relating the British fascination with the Arctic to its larger imperial ambitions is only partly achieved. Nevertheless, Mr David compellingly demonstrates that the Arctic is a key part of the puzzle, and cannot be treated by historians as merely a minor, parallel instance of the colonial project elsewhere. Much like William Edward Parry's first map of Barrow's straits, the outline given by Mr. David exhibits the shores of many capes and atolls, but recedes into dotted lines beyond the travelled route. It is similarly to be hoped that he, and others, will return to these "regions of thick-ribb'd ice" and undertake further explorations in which the fuller extent and significance of this enduring fascination will be discovered.