Painted in April 1850, the present work vividly brings to life one leading mission in the heroic search for British explorer Sir John Franklin. At that time the explorer and his crew aboard HMS Erebus and Terror were understood to be in difficulty in the Canadian Arctic, however their whereabouts remained unknown. Led by the Admiralty and championed energetically by Lady Franklin herself, numerous searches for Franklin were conducted from the western and eastern coasts of Canada. Still optimistic, in 1850 a squadron of four vessels commanded by HMS Resolute (depicted here) was dispatched, using dog sleds and even primitive hydrogen balloons with messages attached. Unbeknownst to those at home, Franklin had already died some three years earlier. Franklin’s expedition, the countless searches led to find him, and later the tragic fate that befell the men caught the imagination of the Romantic movement, finding their most shocking depiction in Edwin Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes of 1864 (fig. 1).
Having joined the Royal Navy at the age of 14, John Franklin served in the Battle of Trafalgar and subsequently became one of the most famous names in polar exploration. In 1818 he was commander of the Trent, with orders 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. 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.
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’. 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 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 off King William Island. 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.
Born in Ostend, Musin came to public prominence as a marine painter in 1840, and went on to enjoy a highly successful international career. His success among collectors in Britain led him to stay in the country until 1849. Only another other similar subject is known: HMS Erebus in the Ice, in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. The work was acquired by Sir James Caird in 1930, and bequeathed along with his collection to the museum which he had a key role in founding. The work was a highlight of the recent exhibition on Franklin Death in the Ice, held at the Maritime Museum in 2017-18.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale