Commander James Clark Ross, 1800-62

A three-quarter-length portrait slightly to left, head turned to right. Ross looks towards the right and directs his gaze out of the picture space. Although the insignia on the epaulettes is obscured so that his rank is not clear from the uniform, the early 1834 exhibition date and title of the painting confirms he is shown as a commander, since he was only promoted to captain in October that year. Draped over his left shoulder he wears a bear's skin. In his right hand he holds a sheathed sword by its scabbard across his front. The Pole Star shines in the sky top right and in the lower right corner of the painting a magnetic dip-circle sits on a table. Most of the background is either dark sky or the inhospitable rocky terrain of the Canadian Arctic.

This highly romanticized portrayal marks Ross's return from an expedition Arctic in 1829-33. During this voyage, he and his uncle, Sir John Ross, discovered the north magnetic pole, at that time located west of the Boothia Peninsula. In 1839-43, Ross commanded the 'Erebus' and 'Terror' on one of the earliest Antarctic expeditions and was knighted on his return.

The artist has paid considerable attention to detail and concentrated on the luxurious tactile quality of the fur and uniform. He has intentionally highlighted the gold on Ross's braid, the ring on his finger, the brilliance of the star, the gleaming dip-circle, and the tassels, buttons, epaulettes and sword. He has foregrounded the texture of the fur in contrast to the black sky and icy background. Man has tamed nature, symbolized by the bearskin and scientific instrument. Jane, Lady Franklin, who knew Ross well, called him 'the handsomest man in the Navy', to which view this portrait lends much support.

The artist was born in Hackney and set up in practice as a portrait painter in London. He exhibited at the Royal Academy, 1823-39. This portrait was exhibited at the (Royal) Society of British Artists in 1834 as 'Commander James Clark Ross, R.N., F.R.S., F.R.A.S., F.L.S., etc., Discoverer of the North Pole'. The Museum also has copies of the mezzotint made from it by R. M. Hodgetts and published by Colnaghi in 1835. The painting is signed 'J R Wildman'.

Object Details

ID: BHC2981
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - Polar Worlds Gallery
Creator: Wildman, John Robert
Date made: 1834
Exhibition: North-West Passage
People: Ross, James Clark
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Caird Fund.
Measurements: Painting: 1442 x 1120 mm; Frame: 1700 mm x 1400 mm x 105 mm; Overall: 53.2 kg

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