Eleanor Porden and John Franklin married in 1823 following his return from the First Arctic Land Expedition in 1822. They had a daughter, also Eleanor, on the 3 June 1824, but the new mother’s health was irreparably damaged by the birth and she died of tuberculosis on 22 February 1825, just six days after John Franklin embarked on his second Arctic voyage carrying the flag she had embroidered to be raised when the expedition reached its furthest northerly point. Three years on from his wife’s death and the year after his return from the Second Arctic Land Expedition in 1827, Franklin married a friend of Eleanor’s, Jane Griffin.
To commemorate the event, Franklin sat for Pierre Jean David D’Angers, the famous French portrait artist who toured France, England and the German lands between 1827 and 1829 making busts and medallions of illustrious men and women. The wax portrait bust of Franklin, modelled on a slate base, was cast in bronze in 1829, the same year Franklin was knighted. The bust was donated to the Polar Museum in 1931 by the ‘Misses Lefroy’, Jessie, from Winchester and Louie, and M. Isabel (Mary-Isabella), who lived together in Bentworth, Hants. Their mother, Emma Cracroft, was Franklin’s niece and the younger sister to Jane Franklin’s lifelong companion and aide-de-camp, Sophia Cracroft. Their father was George Benjamin Austen Lefroy, a grand nephew of Jane Austen. When the bust N: 982. was donated, M. Isabel asked if the museum’s then director, Frank Debenham, could explain how it was that the original wax model remained in tact, when surely it should have been destroyed in the casting process, and further noted the particular value her aunt Sophia Cracroft had placed on the wax original. Debenham’s response was characteristically charming, but limited; though a bit late for Isabel Lefroy’s query (by nearly one hundred years), we now know more on the particularities of David’s technique and the value of the wax original.
The majority of David’s portraits were sketched in wax from life. In his studio David would model the finished portrait in plaster to make the mould for the bronze castings. The plaster model was pressed into a matrix of fine wet sand to leave an impression on the reverse. Into this cavity, when dry, a sheet of wax was melted or liquid wax brushed, precisely conforming to every detail of the impression. The thickness of the wax determined the thickness of the case and formed the incuse reverse. Wax sprues for the introduction of molten bronze and vents for the escaping air were attached to the wax, and the whole was covered with a heat resistant mixture of sand and plaster. The wax was then melted out, leaving a cavity to be filled with molten bronze in a process known as lost-wax casting. After the pouring and cooling of the bronze, the mould was broken away and the cast, scarred on the reverse when relieved of its sprues and vents of bronze, became a foundry model and could be used to make many additional impressions for sand-casting.
The replication of medallions by sand-casting is accomplished by placing the model, obverse up, on a tablet and completely covering it with fine sand contained within the upper part of a flask. When the flask and tablet are turned over and the tablet is removed, the exposed reverse of the model and surrounding matrix are revealed. This surface is dusted with a release agent, and the lower half of the flask is attached, filled with sand, and compressed. The sand in the lower half of the flask might be a less fine and more economical grade, as the reverse of sand-cast medallions often exhibits a grainier surface (as shown below). The two halves of the flask are separated, the model is removed, sprues and vents are cut into the sand, the release agent is applied, the mould is rejoined, and the resulting cavity is filled with molten bronze. When the cast is removed form the mould, the sprues and vents are filed off and the edge is smoothed of the irregularities caused by the intrusion of molten bronze where the two parts of the mould were joined. It is because of this last operation, evidenced by file marks on the circumference of finished casts, that medallions from the same foundry model can be of different dimensions.
When the casting process is complete, the bronze is given its colour, or ‘fire-patina’, by applying chemical compounds of sulphur, copper, and iron, among others, to oxidize the surface. This colouring process is distinct from “cold-patina”, whereby colouring pigments are applied to the bronze surface without further heat treatment. David’s medallions are characteristically shades of brown with the patinas on his early medallions a dark greenish brown, but they can range in colour from blackish brown, to light brown, to a transparent golden brown; this last being more prevalent on the medallions produced by Fumiere et Cie.
The newlywed Jane Franklin was teasingly critical of the portrait and Franklin, writing to D’Angers to offer ‘My warmest thanks to you for this medallion which has delighted all my friends by the lifelike resemblance and the strength of its execution’, noted ‘My wife persists in saying that the nose is too long and that you have made me too handsome.’ From the sad unfolding of events it is clear Lady Jane’s disapproval was tongue-in-cheek. On 4 November 1854, a week after reporting the tragic fate of the Franklin expedition (28 October 1854), a now famous article on the Franklin relics appeared in The Illustrated London News complete with emotive full-page engravings of the broken relics of the expedition, recovered by subsequent search parties. These images were fully authorised by Lady Jane and crowned by a representation of D’Anger’s medallion portrait, though it had not been among the relics. The Polar Museum holds a significant collection of these infamous remains, that are so important not just to understanding the Franklin disaster in Victorian Culture, but also for thinking about what the Polar Museum is all about, and even for understanding current debates around Arctic sovereignty.
After his marriage to Jane Griffin in 1828 Franklin began planning another Arctic expedition, but the Admiralty had lost interest in polar exploration and withdrew their support. Between 1830 and 1833 he served in the Mediterranean during the Greek War of Independence, and following his return and three years unemployment, he was offered lieutenant-governorship of Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania, exploited by the British as the primary penal colony in Australia between 1800 and 1853. John Franklin’s limited experience of administration, the couple’s mutual interest in social reform, and the well-educated, literary, and scientific Lady Franklin’s unconventional behaviour were a recipe for disaster with the conservative high society of the colony. In 1843, six years after arriving in Van Diemen’s Land, the Franklins were recalled to Britain, his confidence shattered and Lady Jane determined to recover their self-esteem.
The Polar Museum holds a button from Franklin’s governor’s coat (N:757). The pulling apart of the status coat, reduced to a humble button, is eloquent of Franklin’s time in the colony; but alongside the relics recovered from the Arctic it takes on new meaning. Buttons were not only collected and revered as tokens of the lost heroes but were manufactured by the search parties, stamped with information such as the date, place, and ships’ name, and distributed among the indigenous people they encountered in the hope of making contact with the lost Franklin expedition. Since the expedition’s first disappearance, buttons have offered a way to recover Franklin. The button is not the only fragment of the Franklins’ time in Tasmania held by the Polar Museum, two pieces of coral from the Indian Ocean feature in the collection. These were originally housed in a leather-covered seaman’s chest, along with exotic shells; stones cut and polished; zoological curiosities, such as the sword from a swordfish; and fossils and minerals from all over the world. A card lain on top of the chest documented the sad provenance, sold by Lady Franklin at her Hedingham Castle bazaar 9 July 1850 ‘… in aid of the funds for fitting out an additional ship sent chiefly at her Ladyship’s expense, in search of the missing expedition to the Arctic regions, under the command of Captain Sir John Franklin.’ The corals are remnants of this chest, and the Franklins’ time in Tasmania, later broken up and sold off in pieces.
When the couple reached England in 1844, the Admiralty were again looking to polar exploration, this time as part of the major international collaborative campaign to survey the earth’s magnetism, which would come to be known as The Magnetic Crusade. With Admiralty advisors and administrators keen to make amends for the disastrous Tasmanian posting, Franklin found himself, despite his age, in pole position to take command. To the very day that last fateful expedition set sail Franklin remained obsessed with correspondence and pamphlets attempting to revise public opinion of his Tasmanian humiliation.