Two original drawings from the second voyage of exploration in the Canadian Arctic undertaken by Captain George Back in command of H.M.S. Terror. The first had been in 1834, later known as the Back River Expedition, which had originally been intended as a rescue mission to find the Arctic explorer, John Ross, of whom nothing had been heard since 1832. By the time the expedition was ready, and Back had set off across Hudson Bay towards the Great Fish River, word was received that Ross was safely home, but that the voyage should continue with the revised objective of clarifying Ross’s survey of King William Land as far as Point Turnagain, discovered by Back’s erstwhile commander, Sir John Franklin. Great Fish River was renamed Back River, and the mission, which became known as the Back River Expedition, was recounted in Back’s Narrative of the Arctic Land Expedition, published in 1836.
The second voyage, which these two drawings illustrate, is a classic tale of heroism and endurance in the cruel face of nature. H.M.S. Terror was a converted bomb vessel, designed for coastal bombardment by mortars rather than cannons, and launched in 1813 at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. Her sturdy design rendered her suitable for enduring the rigours of the Arctic. She was manned by a crew of around sixty, most of the officers and all of the men being volunteers. The captain was again George Back 1796-1878), the 1st lieutenant was William Smyth (1800-1877), and the 2nd lieutenant was Owen Stanley (1811-1850). All three were competent artists, particularly the first two. That these two drawings are by the same hand is clear, and the first we know is Smyth’s as there is the identical illustration, lithographed by Louis Haghe, in the published account of the voyage, Narrative of an Expedition in H.M.S. Terror, issued in 1838. In 2006, Christie’s sold a very similar composition to the second drawing, in their case by Owen Stanley, showing the vessel firmly embedded in ice. But the quality and detail of that drawing does not bear comparison to one offered here.
Captain Back and his crew set off from England in June, 1836, with provisions for 18 months. H.M.S. Terror had to be towed by steamer to the Orkneys before sailing across the North Atlantic to Hudson Bay. Unfortunately, by late August she was beset by ice, east of the aptly named Frozen Strait. The expedition was then icebound for the next 10 months, the sturdiness of their vessel being tested to the maximum as extreme pressure from the surrounding ice even squeezed the linseed oil out of the hull’s planks, with no option but to be transported with the floe, at one point being elevated 40 feet up a cliff face by the supporting ice. It took until July the following year, 1837, for the ship to be float free and be able to traverse the Atlantic again. But, even then a lot of ice still clung to the hull, to the extent that when a large chunk came adrift on one side, the sudden imbalance tipped her dangerously to the other side, and such was the state of her that she was eventually beached on the Irish coast.
Although this proved to be Back’s last Arctic adventure, H.M.S Terror was refitted and used by Ross on his expedition from 1839 to 1843, and then again, including the addition of iron cladding and auxilliary steam engines, for Franklin’s famously fateful attempt to find the Northwest Passage in 1845. She was believed to have been finally lost with all hands, along with the other ship on the voyage, H.M.S. Erebus, in 1848, though the wreck of Terror was rediscovered by Canadian marine archaeologists, in a remarkable state of preservation, in September 2016.
2 pencil drawings on grey paper heightened with white chalk, each c.10.5 x 17 cm. (4 1/8 X 6 3/4 in), hinged into mounts.
Stock ID: 96792