Taissumani, Jan. 31
The Arctic Council of 1851
When most people hear the phrase “The Arctic Council,” they think of the multi-national body currently chaired by Canada, a group of eight nations that meet to discuss issues faced by their governments and citizens.
But less well-known was an earlier Arctic Council dating to the year 1851.
Perhaps the fact that it is so little-known is just as well. For in fact this earlier Arctic Council never really existed except as a fantasy.
Most histories that mention it claim that it was a formal advisory body of noted explorers with Arctic experience, created by the British Admiralty to provide advice on the search for the missing John Franklin expedition, not seen since 1845 when it disappeared into the cold labyrinth of channels in what would become the Canadian Arctic.
The group existed tangibly in only one place – on the four by six foot canvas of an oil painting completed by Stephen Pearce in July of 1851. The painting was exhibited at Buckingham Palace and throughout Britain. Two years later an engraved version was published; its sales made the image even more well known.
The painting showed two men – Rear Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort and Captain Frederick William Beechey - seated at a table, while other men stood nearby. They are Captain Sir George Back, Captain Sir William Edward Parry, Captain Edward Joseph Bird, Dr. Sir John Richardson, Captain Sir James Clark Ross, Colonel Edward Sabine, Captain William Alexander Baillie Hamilton, and John Barrow Jr., who had commissioned the portrait for the Admiralty
As if this was not a complete enough collection of Arctic worthies to have together in one room, three framed portraits adorn the wall. They are of Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin himself; Captain James Fitzjames, lost in the Arctic with Franklin; and the late Sir John Barrow Sr., former long-serving Second Secretary to the Admiralty.
But the 10 men portrayed were never together in one room anywhere. Pearce painted them individually, most in his London studio. As recent scholarship has shown, Barrow intended the painting only to “commemorate the various search efforts.”
That it did, and perhaps all too effectively. Sir John Ross complained that he had been excluded from the Arctic Council, although included in the picture. Dr. Richard King, never one to toe the party line, complained that the Admiralty acted only on the advice of the “recently appointed Arctic Council.”
Yet Admiralty records, naval histories, and most arctic books written at the time fail to mention the Arctic Council. In more recent times, but predating the creation of today’s eight-nation political body, however, the Arctic Council is often referred to. In 1959, one author called it “the Admiralty’s committee of advisors — the newly created Arctic Council.”
But others — those who have done their research in primary sources - have pointed out that the 10 men in the picture never met formally as one body. Groups of them may have met, and they certainly individually made their views on the Franklin search known to the Admiralty.
In 1967 at an exhibition in Ottawa, Pearce’s painting was displayed. The cataloguer of the exhibition stated quite clearly, “It is a mythical scene as no such body as the Arctic Council existed.” And that, succinctly, sums up the nineteenth century Arctic Council. A fiction. A chimera.
So what caused the mistaken belief in the Arctic Council? One possibility is that it may have been confused with a group known as the Arctic Committee, but that was a body comprised of only five naval officers who met in 1851 to discuss the results of the previous two years’ search efforts.
In fact, all investigation leads back to Stephen Pearce. The popularity of his painting, and its title — “The Arctic Council discussing a plan of search for Sir John Franklin” — gave currency to the idea of a larger Arctic Council. What John Barrow Jr. had intended as a symbolic depiction of Arctic experts providing their advice to the Admiralty had became reality.
In fact, the 1851 Arctic Council, depicted so beautifully by Stephen Pearce, never existed.