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The Polar Museum: news blog

The daguerreotype portraits Blog 6:

Pre-1851 copies made for Sophia Cracroft on high quality salted paper, Derbyshire County Archives.

 

Among the most famous images of the Franklin expedition are the daguerreotype portraits taken of the twelve officers of Erebus in the run up to departure, together with Francis Crozier and James Fitzjames of the Terror. From a particular feature of the daguerreian apparatus (described below), we know the images were taken in pairs, making a total of twenty-eight images. Of the thirteen known originals still in existence, almost all are in the Polar Museum, which holds the glass plate image of Fitzjames and eleven of the officers of Erebus, missing only original portraits of Robert Sargent, (Erebus), and Francis Crozier, (Terror). The only other extant known original is nearly identical to the Polar Museum’s daguerreotype of Henry Le Vesconte, Lieutenant HMS Erebus and in the hands of Le Vesconte’s descendants. However, pre-1851 copies made for Sophia Cracroft on high quality salted paper (shown above) as well as other images distributed across collections and private ownership, have made it possible to glean some idea of the full set of twin images.

 

Left, James Fitzjames daguerreotype portrait by Richard Beard, taken spring 1845 on the dockside at Greenhithe near HMS Erebus and Terror Polar Museum: N: 589/3. Right, a photograph of the original daguerreotype twin of the N: 589/3.

 

In nearly every case, the sitter – for whom photography was new – held the same static position for both twin images. For James Fitzjames, Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, Charles Frederick Des Voeux, James Walter Fairholme however there are identifiable differences. In the case of the James Fitzjames portrait held by the Polar Museum he is stern-looking; while in the other, for which the original dagguerotype is lost and only copies are known to exist – he has picked up a brass telescope, and there is a hint of a smile. Fairholme described the sitting to his father, saying

‘I hope Elizabeth got my photograph. Lady Franklin said she thought it made me look too old, but as I had Fitzjames’ coat on at the time, to save myself the trouble of getting my own, you will perceive that I am a Commander! and have anchors on the epaulettes so it will do capitally when that really is the case.’

Thanks to Dr Huw Lewis-Jones of the Scott Polar Research Institute who was first to notice the phenomena, scholars of the Franklin daguerreotypes have been able to glean information about where the images were taken from the reflections in the peaks of the caps carried by Fitzjames and Lieutenant Graham Gore. Most of the portraits, including that of Sir John Franklin himself who was recovering from the flu, looking ill, and uncomfortably stuffed into his uniform, were taken in front of a cloth backdrop. However, the caps reveal this to be a temporary dockside studio rather than Richard Beard’s professional premises, illustrated by the infamous satirist George Cruikshank in 1841.

Richard Beard’s daguerreotype studio, illustrated by George Cruikshank, 1841.

Franklin’s portrait, taken while he was stuffed and unwell with flu. Polar Museum N: 589/1

 

Franklin had taken a strong interest in the invention of the daguerrotype as early as 1840, while in Tasmania, and daguerrian apparatus was included among the instruments brought aboard “Erebus” and “Terror”. While the interest originated with John Franklin, the commission for the portraits of the officers to be taken in the days before the expedition departed appears to have come from Jane, with ice master James Reid writing 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.’

The photographer, Richard Beard, was a coal merchant who had taken to speculating in patents and one of only two men (the other being Antoine Claudet) with any kind of licence to make daguerrotypes. The twin images were a product of Beard’s mirror camera which had a singular feature: the mirror had a pivot something like a modern SLR camera, and by turning it the photographer could record two images on a single oblong plate. This gave Beard the opportunity to choose the better of the exposures, or – if both were satisfactory – provide two daguerreotypes and double his profit. This he did with the Franklin images, one set, now in the Polar Museum were given to Lady Franklin; the other once thought to have been given to the Admiralty, may have been purchased or distributed by relatives of officers. After the images were made the apparatus was stowed on Erebus. The challenges of sensitizing and exposing a plate, which required (at different stages) vaporizing both iodine and mercury, would have been considerable in the Arctic climate and there are no known Daguerreotypes of the frozen regions from this era.

This blog post on the Franklin daguerreotypes draws heavily on the blogs and publications of Russell Potter (visionsnorth.blogspot.co.uk), William Battersby, (http://hidden-tracks-book.blogspot.co.uk) and William Schultz (The Daguerrian Annual, Pittsburgh: The Daguerreian Society, 2005). For biographical detail on Beard and his rise as one of the most influential figures nineteenth-century photography in England, see Hannavay, John, ‘Beard, Richard (1801-1885),’ Encyclopaedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, London: Routledge, Vol. 1. 126-7.

 

 

 

 

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