19th Century European Paintings

The Search for Sir John Franklin in the Arctic

By Richard Lowkes

London has its fair share of public statues, and many who cross Waterloo Place going up to the West End probably pass by without giving much thought to Sir John Franklin. Having joined the Royal Navy at the age of 14, Franklin served in the Battle of Trafalgar and subsequently became one of the most famous names in polar exploration, synonymous with the Victorian virtues of heroism, endurance, and self-sacrifice.

As it became clear that his latest mission in the Canadian Arctic had run into difficulty, the search to locate Franklin and his ill-fated crew caught the imagination of the Romantic age. Painted in the midst of these events, an exceptional work by Belgian marine artist François Musin in Sotheby’s forthcoming Art of Travel and Exploration sale depicts the crew of HMS Resolute in the ice, vividly bringing to life one of the most important missions in the search for Franklin.

François Musin, HMS Resolute in Search of Sir John Franklin. Estimate: £80,000–120,000

Franklin’s career in polar exploration began in 1818, as commander of the Trent. His orders were to sail to the North Pole and thence into the Northwest passage from the Bering Strait, searching for a route which would connect trade between the Atlantic and Pacific via the Arctic. Exploration in the region went back to the days of the Venetian John Cabot some 320 years earlier, and by the early 19th century finding the Northwest passage was one of the great challenges remaining for explorers. Franklin saw it as his mission: “No service is nearer to my heart than the completion of the survey of the north coast of America, and the accomplishment of a Northwest passage”. Knighted in 1829, Franklin was a founding member of the Geographical Society in London, a recipient of the Gold Medal from the Société de Géographie of France, and a natural choice to lead the new expedition in 1845.

On the monument to Franklin, a bronze frieze imagines the explorer’s coffin being laid to rest beneath the ice in a ritual of quiet dignity. In the background, their ships HMS Erebus and Terror are visible. While the date on the coffin records Franklin’s death date of 11 June 1847, at that time it was still widely thought the explorer was alive. Franklin’s ships were last seen by a whaler off Baffin Bay in August 1845, and they had enough supplies to last until summer 1848 – longer than the two summers thought necessary for the exploration of the Northwest passage. It is perhaps not surprising that John Ross’s initial offer to search for Franklin in January 1847 was rebuffed by the Admiralty, who countered that they had “unlimited confidence in the skills and resources of Sir John Franklin”.

Detail from the monument to Sir John Franklin in London, erected in 1866. Credit: Richard Lowkes

Led by the Admiralty and championed energetically by Lady Franklin herself, numerous fruitless searches were conducted from the western and eastern coasts of Canada. Still optimistic, the search for Franklin was at its height in 1850, when Musin painted the work listed in the upcoming auction. That year a squadron of four vessels commanded by HMS Resolute (depicted in Musin’s painting) was dispatched, using dog sleds and even primitive hydrogen balloons with messages attached.

Shortly afterwards traces of Franklin’s expedition began to be found and the graves of three of the crew, who had died in early 1846, were discovered on Beechey Island. The Admiralty abandoned its search in January 1854, The Times declaring that the expeditions were by now “wasting time upon a search for dead men’s bones”. Lady Franklin nevertheless continued to fund missions in search of her husband and his crew, defending them against lurid rumours of cannibalism and seeking proof that their exploration had not been in vain. Although none of Franklin’s crew was rescued alive, numerous traces were found (and later exhibited in London), and the missions produced valuable information which helped map northern Canada. In 1853 Samuel Gurney Cresswell became the first person to cross the Northwest passage while searching for Franklin, travelling for much of the journey by sledge rather than ship.


In one sense the search for Franklin never truly ended. The three graves on Beechey Island were exhumed in the 1980s and the bodies found in a miraculous state of preservation. Designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1992, the wrecks of Franklin’s ships HMS Erebus and Terror were discovered only recently, in 2014 and 2016 respectively. The recent exhibition Death in the Ice at the Greenwich Maritime Museum told the story of the expedition and its aftermath, and another painting by François Musin, depicting HMS Erebus, from the Maritime Museum’s own collection was displayed. As climate change disrupts ice in the Arctic, the North-West passage has today become navigable for small ships.

As for HMS Resolute, she returned in autumn 1851, and was sent out again in spring the next year in what the Admiralty planned as one final search. Ice-bound, Resolute and her squadron had to be abandoned in 1854, however she was later found drifting some 1,000 miles east in the Davis Strait. Discovered by an American whaler, the ship was refitted and presented as a gift to Britain. The Resolute desk, later made from the ship’s timbers, is now in the White House where it has been used by US presidents.

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