Sir John Ross (1777-1856)

(Updated February 2022) A three-quarter length portrait of Sir John Ross to right wearing a sealskin coat worn over a black coat with naval civilian buttons and his badge as a Knight of the Swedish Order of the Sword, which he had been made in 1809. He holds a chart in his left hand. The background shows a camp setting in the Arctic.

Ross’s early years with the merchant service slowed his promotion once he rejoined the Royal Naval service (which he had originally entered), and he did not become a lieutenant until 1805. From 1808 he served with de Saumarez in the Baltic and was made a Knight of the of the Swedish Order of the Sword in 1809 after serving on their staff. His Arctic explorations began in 1814 and in 1818 he went on Parry’s expedition. Unfortunately on this occasion he identified a range of mountains in Lancaster Sound which must have been a mirage and when they subsequently proved not to be there his reputation suffered. He was not employed again until 1829 when he went on the Felix Booth expedition in command of the ‘Victory’, attempting to find the North-West Passage to the Pacific. He did not return until 1833. In 1839 he went as consul to Stockholm and returned in 1846. Quarrels with others interested in Arctic exploration resulted in his receiving little further employment and in 1850 he went on an expedition himself at his own expense.

The portrait was probably painted in 1833-34 since in December 1834 Ross was first made a Companion of the Bath and then knighted by William IV, who at the same time granted him permission to wear the Russian Imperial Order of St Anne. Details on the left include what is presumably his ship 'Victory' under protection as winter quarters and flying hoists of flags, a small two-masted vessel hauled up ahead of it, an open boat and expedition huts. On the right are two men in polar clothing by a brass cannon, above which flies what is presumably Ross's expedition flag. This bears an elaborate cartouche showing a star above three vertical boars' heads and with the motto 'Deus Adiuvat Nos' (God helps us) below, overlaid on a St George cross. The emblems and motto are those of the Booth family as expedition sponsors. While the overall effect and the likeness of Ross is good, much of the painting quality is very rough and the origins of the portrait unknown, though it was property of his family, latterly at Wadworth Hall, Doncaster, until October 1917. By then, however, it is clear from surviving records that they did not know who had painted it.

This painting has been attributed to Henry Hawkins on the grounds that it corresponds to descriptions of a portrait of Ross by him that was exhibited at the Society of British Artists in Suffolk Street in spring 1834 (no. 117). ‘The Lady’s Magazine’ wrote of Hawkins’s portrait that 'The figure and face of the hero of the day is as like as if he had walked into the frame…The glowing brilliancy of the stars above the head of the great navigator, has a very fine and appropriate effect' (May 1834, p. 299). ‘Arnold’s Magazine for the Fine Arts’ claimed that the painting showed Ross’s 'bluff, sailor-like features' and offered a 'characteristic representation of him enshrouded in snow, with his ship in the distance' (May 1834, p. 65). The ‘Morning Chronicle’ (7 April 1834) described the painting as follows: 'The Captain is the man for the North Pole. Here he stands, with his coat open, and without hat or gloves, amidst thick-ribbed ice and eternal snows.'

The background corresponds to an image of the 'Victory' in Felix Harbour that Ross himself had sketched. His illustration was used as the basis for a section of Robert Burford’s Leicester Square panorama of the expedition, which opened in spring 1834, and it was also published in the official voyage narrative in 1835.

Object Details

ID: BHC2983
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - Polar Worlds Gallery
Creator: British School, 19th century; Hawkins, Henry
Date made: circa 1833
People: Ross, John; Ross, Arthur V.
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection
Measurements: Painting: 1420 mm x 1145 mm; Frame: 1577x 1268 x 80 mm, 36.6 kg

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