This remarkable set of three-quarter length daguerreotype portraits was made, en plein air, by the Beard Studio aboard Her Majesty’s Ship, the Erebus, on 15-17 May 1845, just three days before Sir John Franklin sailed on his legendary scientific voyage to the Northwest Passage, never to return. The 129-strong Franklin Expedition, conveyed in HMS Erebus and HMS Terror—the two vessels already successfully employed by James Clark Ross on his 1839-43 Antarctic expedition—was to traverse the final unnavigated sections of the Northwest Passage whilst recording magnetic data. Tragically, the expedition met with disaster after the two ships became icebound, under circumstances still not fully understood to this day. These portraits, hailing from the dawn of photography, represent the first, and last, time that Franklin and his men had their photographs taken. Together, they sharply bring into focus the human story behind an expedition about which so much still remains shrouded in mystery.
It is the present set of daguerreotypes that were later rendered into woodcuts and published in The Illustrated London News on 13 September 1851 and Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion on 18 October 1851. The images in The Illustrated London News are an exact mirror image—not only of the sequence of images, but also the positions of the sitters, the objects held in the officers’ hands, and the background details. The accompanying article states that “Lady Franklin possesses one case of these likenesses, and Mr. Beard has another, which he has kindly permitted our artist to copy”. Whilst the present set comes from Franklin’s direct descendants, it is possible that it may also have been at one time in the possession of the photographer himself.
This set is sumptuous, not only because it is housed in an unusually large book-form morocco case (believed to be original), but also because all but one of the portraits have been embellished with gold shell applied by hand to the buttons, hat bands, and epaulettes of the officers’ jackets (with the exception of Stanley, who is not wearing a uniform).
According to The Illustrated London News’s article, “Mr. Beard was commissioned to supply Sir John Franklin with a complete Daguerreotype apparatus, to take out with him, and with which, on board one of the ships, the accompanying portraits were taken”.
Franklin learned early of photography’s invention, having received a letter from Sir John Richardson, M. D., F. R. S., F. L. S., extolling the daguerreotype as “one of the most remarkable discoveries of modern times” (5 February 1840, published in The Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science, Agriculture, Statistics, &c., Vol. I, 1842, p. 71). “You are aware that iodine is used in Daguerre’s process for getting the solar drawing on his silvered plate. Who could have anticipated that the discovery of a violet-coloured gas in the refuse of kelp would lead to such important results?” (ibid., p. 72). Although the challenges of operating photographic equipment in extreme conditions would have been significant, the Erebus and Terror were sophisticated retrofitted vessels, complete with internal heating systems and well-stocked with cutting-edge products, such as a surplus of tinned food.
This portrait gallery is therefore the only known photographic record of the Franklin expedition. The only other known set of the daguerreotypes is in the collection of the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) , a bequest in 1941 from Miss Jessie Lefroy, a great niece of Franklin. However, the set at SPRI only includes 12 portraits—lacking the likenesses of Robert Sargent and Francis Crozier found in both the present set and The Illustrated London News engraving. The SPRI daguerreotypes are also cased individually, whereas the present complete set of daguerreotypes are housed together in one large, handsome case.
These images are the primary lens through which the public saw Franklin and his men, and thus a landmark artefact of an expedition which has never failed to capture the public imagination—whether through the numerous Victorian rescue expeditions to the recent discovery of the wrecks of the Erebus and Terror, or through the prolific literary responses the Franklin expedition has inspired, from authors as diverse as Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Dan Simmons, and Michael Palin, amongst many others.
But apart from its broader significance within the histories of polar exploration and of early photography, it is worth remembering the private dimension that this set of images holds. As Ice Master James Reid wrote to his family: "Lady Franklin has ordered all the officers likenesses to be taken and mine among the rest, with my uniform on—She keeps them all by herself" (James Reid to Ann Reid [wife], 19 May 1845, quoted in Russell Potter, ed., May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth: Letters of the Lost Franklin Arctic Expedition). Franklin’s family must have known that the safe return of the fifty-nine-year old Sir John was no certainty, even if “the man who ate his boots” (as he was nicknamed) had a reputation for resilience in the face of extreme physical hardship. It is when viewed as a private keepsake, rather than as a public record, that the human stories beneath these images truly come alive.
- Charles Frederick Des Voeux
- Charles Hamilton Osmer
- James Walter Fairholme
- Edward Couch
- James Fitzjames
- Sir John Franklin
- Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier
- Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte
- Stephen Samuel Stanley
- Graham Gore
- Henry Foster Collins
- Harry Duncan Spens Goodsir
- James Reid
- Robert Orme Sargent
Charles Frederick Des Voeux, born c.1825, Second Mate, HMS ErebusDes Voeux was born in Ireland and began his naval career by serving in the Egyptian Ottoman War (1840), and then the First Opium War. During the latter, he made the acquaintance of James Fitzjames, who commanded HMS Erebus during the Franklin Expedition. Des Voeux was described by Fitzjames as "a most unexceptionable, clever, agreeable, light-hearted, obliging young fellow”. Alongside Graham Gore, Des Voeux signed and deposited the Victory Point Record, one of the only official communications of the expedition found to this day.
Charles Hamilton Osmer, born 1799, Paymaster Purser, HMS ErebusOsmer was born in Portsea, England, and entered the Navy as a clerk in 1819, beginning his career aboard HMS Blossom. Between 1825 and 1828, he served on an expedition led by Frederick Beechey to conduct scientific work in the Bering Strait. Fitzjames was initially rather scathing about Osmer, calling him a “stupid old man”, but later revised this opinion after the two had spent time together, writing that the Purser was “delightful… as merry-hearted as any young man, full of quaint dry sayings, always good-humoured, always laughing, never a bore… he is a gentleman”.
James Walter Fairholme, born 1821, Third Lieutenant, HMS ErebusFairholme was born in Scotland and joined the Royal Navy aged 13 as a First-class Volunteer. He served on the West India station and then became second in command of a prize-slaver, during which time his ship was wrecked and he spent 16 days imprisoned by the Moors. His naval career then encapsulated the early operations of the Syrian War and the exploration of Niger. He joined the Franklin expedition as the fifth most senior Officer on board. Fitzjames described him as “a smart, agreeable companion, and a well-informed man”.
Edward Couch, born 1823, Third Mate, HMS ErebusCouch was born in Camberwell, London, and met James Fitzjames whilst serving aboard HMS Excellent, aged 14. Fitzjames characterised him as a “little black haired, smooth faced fellow. Good humored in his own way; writes, reads, works, draws, all quietly. Is never in the way of anybody, and always ready when wanted; but I can find no remarkable point in his character, except, perhaps, that he is obstinate."
James Fitzjames, born 1813, Commander, HMS ErebusFitzjames was of illegitimate birth and his friends and relatives took pains to conceal his origins. He entered the Royal Navy aged 12, and eventually served on the Euphrates Expedition between 1834 and 1837. He became a highly qualified gunnery lieutenant, serving aboard HMS Ganges during the Egyptian-Ottoman War (1839-40), and then aboard HMS Cornwallis during the First Opium War—during which time he developed a reputation for reckless bravery. Sir John Barrow, a prime mover of the Franklin Expedition, initially campaigned for Fitzjames to lead it, though Franklin and Sir Francis Crozier were eventually appointed instead. After Franklin’s death on 11 June 1847, Crozier became expedition leader and Fitzjames second in command.
Sir John Franklin, born 1786, Captain, HMS Erebus, and expedition leaderThe son of a Lincolnshire merchant, Franklin took an interest in seafaring from a young age, and first secured a Royal Navy appointment on HMS Polyphemus. In the early stages of his career, he participated in an expedition around the coast of Australia commanded by Matthew Flinders, and was present at the Battle of Trafalgar. In 1819, he was chosen to lead the infamous Coppermine expedition, whose survivors were forced to eat lichen, even attempting to eat their own leather footwear (thus earning Franklin the nickname “the man who ate his boots”). In 1837, he was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Van Dieman’s Land, though he was removed from office in 1843. By the time of the expedition to the Northwest Passage, Franklin was 59 years old, and had to quell doubts about his physical fitness for such a venture. Moreover, at the time this daguerreotype was taken, he had recently recovered from a bout of influenza.
Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, born 1796, Captain, HMS TerrorThe only officer from the Terror included in this series of portraits. Crozier, born in Ireland, volunteered for the Royal Navy at age 13, serving on HMS Briton. In 1821, he joined William Parry’s second Arctic expedition to traverse the Northwest Passage. He returned to the North with Parry in 1824 and 1827, and became a close friend of James Clark Ross during these voyages. He was appointed second-in-command of Ross’s 1839 expedition to the Antarctic, during which voyage he commanded the Terror, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1843 for his work on magnetism. Though considered to lead the Franklin expedition, his Irish ancestry and relatively humble origins counted against him. After Franklin’s death, Crozier took command of the expedition. The SPRI set of daguerreotypes does not include Crozier’s portrait.
Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, born 1813, Second Lieutenant, HMS ErebusBorn in Devon, the son of a Commander in the Royal Navy, Le Vesconte followed in the footsteps of his father’s career. He performed several acts of gallantry in the China War (1841), during which time he was promoted to Lieutenant. His later appointments were aboard the Hyacinth and the Clio, and aboard the latter ship he served under Fitzjames, with whom he served for over two years on cruises to suppress the slave trade. Fitzjames recommended Le Vesconte’s appointment to the Erebus.
Stephen Samuel Stanley, Chief Surgeon, HMS ErebusStanley’s date of birth is unknown. He entered the navy in June 1838, first serving aboard HMS Cornwallis, where he met Fitzjames. He signed up for the Franklin Expedition upon Fitzjames’ recommendation, and wed Mary Ann Windus just ten days before leaving for the Northwest Passage. Fitzjames characterised Stanley as “very good-natured and obliging, and very attentive to our mess”, though he could not resist a touch of Dickensian caricature in his pen portrait of the expedition’s Chief Surgeon—calling him “rather inclined to be good-looking, but fat, with jet-black hair, very white hands, which are always abominably clean, and the shirt-sleeves tucked up; giving one unpleasant ideas that he would not mind cutting one's leg off—‘if not sooner'."
Graham Gore, born c. 1809, First Lieutenant, HMS ErebusGore was born in Plymouth, Devon, to a family of distinguished naval officers. In 1822, he entered the Royal Naval College in Portsmouth, and saw action in 1827 at the Battle of Navarino. Between 1836 and 1837, Gore served as Mate on HMS Terror during the exploration of the Arctic at Hudson Bay, and earned the Arctic Medal. A talented artist, his painting of Burial Reach and Flinders River in Queensland is held in the collection of the National Library of Australia. Gore joined the crew of the Erebus as the third most senior officer on board, after Franklin and Fitzjames. The latter described Gore in superlative terms, as a “man of great stability of character, a very good officer, and the sweetest of tempers”.
Henry Foster Collins, born 1818, Second Master, HMS ErebusFitzjames’ description brings to life the Second Master of the Erebus as one of the most eccentric characters amongst the expedition party: “the very essence of good nature, and I may say good humour—but he is mad, I am sure—for he squints to himself with a painful expression of countenance when he is thinking—(or thinking of nothing) and I can get no work out of him, though ever so willing he may be—yet he is not a bore nor a nuisance—but a nonentity.”
Harry Duncan Spens Goodsir, born 1819, Assistant Surgeon, HMS ErebusHimself the son of a medical practitioner, Goodsir studied medicine in Edinburgh and became a member of the Royal Medical Society. Harry collaborated with his brother John on his pioneering work on cell theory, and his final communication was a paper entitled “On the anatomy of Forbesia”, transmitted from Greenland in June 1845. Harry’s younger brother Robert joined two of the Victorian expeditions sent out to find Franklin and his lost men.
James Reid, born c.1800, Ice-Master, HMS ErebusBorn in Aberdeen, Scotland, Reid served on the whaler London between 1813 and 1815, and became a harpooner. Fitzjames describes him as "rough, intelligent, unpolished, with a broad north country accent, but not vulgar; good-humoured, and honest-hearted", noting his gift for amusing crewmates with his "quaint remarks and descriptions of the ice, catching whales, etc".
Robert Orme Sargent, born 1821, First Mate, HMS ErebusThe son of William Sargent and Sophia Arnold, Robert Orme Sargent passed his naval examination in July 1843. Fitzjames characterised Sargent as a “nice pleasant looking lad, very good natured”. The SPRI set of daguerreotypes does not include Sargent’s portrait.
Graham Smith, "Dr. Harry Goodsir by Dr. Adamson of St. Andrews," History of Photography, vol. 10, no. 3, July-September 1986, figs. 7-9, p. 234 (Sir John Franklin, Commander James Fitzjames, and Dr. Harry Goodsir, in the collection of the Scott Polar Research Institute)
Douglas Wamsley and William Barr, "Early Photographers of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland," Imagining the Arctic (London, 1998), fig. 1, p. 37 (Sir John Franklin, source unknown)
Dr. William J. Schultz, "Images of Colonial Empire: British Military Daguerreotypes," The Daguerreian Annual 2005, pp. 161-68 (albumen prints, copied from this set of daguerreotypes, in the collection of the National Maritime Museum, London)
Huw Lewis-Jones, Face to Face Polar Portraits (London, 2010), pp. 20 and 65 (Sir John Franklin, in the collection of the Scott Polar Research Institute)
Huw Lewis-Jones, Imagining The Arctic: Heroism, Spectacle and Polar Exploration (London, 2017), p. 297 (Sir John Franklin, in the collection of the Scott Polar Research Institute)
The Illustrated London News, Volume 19, Issue 516 (13 September 1851), pp. 7, 10
Dr. Russell A. Potter, Regina Koellner, Peter Carney, and Mary Williamson, eds. May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth: Letters of the Lost Franklin Arctic Expedition (McGill: Queen’s University Press, 2022)
Sotheby’s is grateful to Richard Fattorini, to Ian and Angela Moor of The Centre for Photographic Conservation, and to Lucy Martin of Scott Polar Research Institute, for their assistance.