Ice: A Victorian Romance, Linda Hall Library

imageIn 1818, the British began an infatuation with the Arctic.  It started innocently enough, with the Admiralty trying to find an outlet for naval officers and seamen who had been idled by the end of the Napoleonic wars.  When a whaling captain pointed out in 1817 that the Greenland ice was very sparse that year, it occurred to the Admiralty that this might be a good time to renew that centuries-old search for a Northwest Passage to the Orient.  So the Navy sent off two small expeditions, neither of which was particularly fruitful.  But the idea was a great success.  More ships followed the first, and other expeditions were dispatched overland.  Some achieved partial success, others were near disasters or total failures, but for each expedition, a narrative was published.  Many of the naval officers were accomplished artists, and so the narratives tended to be well illustrated, often with color plates, and readers were treated to glorious images of icebergs, Inuit seal-hunters, ships beset by floes or frozen into winter harbors, snow houses, walruses, and maps—maps that started out empty, and slowly filled in as the narratives piled up and the decades went by.

Around 1840, this fascination with Arctic ice broadened, as two other icy frontiers were encountered.  First, in 1839, the Royal Navy sent out an expedition to discover Antarctica, hot on the heels of similar French and American expeditions.  All three voyages had some success, and the narratives, with images of newly discovered islands, penguins, and vast ice sheets, were very popular.  Then, in 1840, an argument was advanced that glaciers such as those now found in the Alps had once covered much of Europe, including Great Britain.  Here was a new and provocative notion, that England itself had once been part of an icy world.

The ice romance culminated in the disappearance of the Franklin expedition.  Sent out on yet another search for the Northwest Passage in 1845, it failed to return, and after a three-year absence, the first search expeditions were sent out. Eleven years, and thirty-six search expeditions later, the sad fate of Franklin and his men was finally revealed.  But in the process of the search, the route of the Northwest Passage was finally revealed, and the remainder of the Arctic coast and much of the archipelago was explored and mapped.

Our exhibition attempts to merge these three icy frontiers into one thematic story.  By 1860, the idea that the earth had gone through an Ice Age was finally being accepted, and people attempted to view that Ice Age through the lenses of the Arctic, Antarctica, and the Alps.  Knowledge of the Arctic and Antarctic, gained at such cost, provided a framework for reconstructing the ice of the prehistoric past.

All the publications on display are from the collections of the Linda Hall Library.

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