Alert and Discovery under Cape Prescott, August 1875
In March 2007 I had the chance to conduct some research into one of two collections of Arctic photographs for the Freeze Frame exhibition on display in the Queen's House. On conducting initial research I found that the British Arctic Expedition, commanded by Captain George Nares, was generally relegated to a footnote or short paragraph in polar-related publications, or even not mentioned at all. This intrigued me because the Museum holds quite an extensive collection of material relating to this expedition, which ranges from photographic albums, letters and journals to sledges, clothing and even the head of a muskox.
Lady Franklin Sound sledging party outside Discovery, April 1876
The expedition suffered four deaths and returned home at least a year early. However, despite this, over 300 miles of the northern coastline of Ellesmere Island and Greenland was charted, many articles based on meteorological and geological research were published, and a furthest north was achieved - reaching within 400 miles of the North Pole.
As part of the expedition Captain Nares requested photographic equipment for each ship. Thus George White, Assistant Engineer for Alert (1856), and Thomas Mitchell, Paymaster for Discovery (1874), were trained at the Army School of Photography in Chatham in the latest photographic processes.
Mr White and 'Nelly' at Alert's winter quarters, circa May 1876
The photographs that they took not only document running aground and their encounters with ice floes and bergs but also record the indigenous people of Greenland and the ships' winter quarters. Cataloguing the photographs was complicated as the three albums (all with identical prints) had different captions that did not always agree and so some detective work was required to identify places and events.
The original photographs were put on display at the Photographic Society of Great Britain exhibition in 1877. Nares recorded in his official report, 'Mr Mitchell and Mr George White have made a most valuable collection of photographs of subjects connected with arctic life and scenes.' Importantly, these two amateurs in the field of photography set the precedent for professionals like Herbert Ponting and Frank Hurley in the early 20th century in recording the activities, achievements and polar landscapes for an audience at home.