Admiral Sir George Back (British, 1796-1878) H.M.S. Terror and one of her boats off a spectacular iceberg, apparently in the Davis Strait, between Canada and Greenland

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Lot 83
Admiral Sir George Back
(British, 1796-1878)
H.M.S. Terror and one of her boats off a spectacular iceberg, apparently in the Davis Strait, between Canada and Greenland

Sold for £ 37,250 (US$ 47,804) inc. premium
Admiral Sir George Back (British, 1796-1878)
H.M.S. Terror and one of her boats off a spectacular iceberg, apparently in the Davis Strait, between Canada and Greenland
signed 'G. Back' (lower left)
watercolour with scratching out
14.5 x 22.5cm (5 11/16 x 8 7/8in).


    Katherine Pares (née Back), the artist's niece, as he died without issue
    Basil Pares, son of the above
    Thence by descent to the present owner

    Inside any Pantheon to polar discovery, the name of George Back sits alongside those of Sir John Franklin, William Parry, John Ross and his nephew James as one of the greatest pioneers of Arctic exploration.

    Admiral Sir George Back was born in Stockport, Cheshire, on 6th November 1796 and entered the Royal Navy as a Midshipman in the frigate Arethusa in September 1808. After an eventful six months in action off the north coast of Spain, he was captured by the French and spent the next six years as a prisoner-of-War in Verdun. Finally released in May 1814, he served briefly in the Akbar and then in the Bulwark before transferring again in January 1818, this time into the hired-brig Trent commanded by the young Lieutenant John Franklin, to accompany that vessel on what now is regarded as the very first Arctic Expedition, the ambitious objectives of which were not only to find the fabled 'North West Passage' but also to reach the North Pole that same year. Although the voyage was unsuccessful due to severe gales and heavy pack ice, the ships nevertheless returned safely and Franklin selected Back to accompany him on his next expedition to explore the Arctic coast of North America in 1819-22, during which Back was responsible for all the surveying and chart-making. Promoted Lieutenant in January 1821, Back then served with the fleet for two years before joining Franklin yet again for the latter's Second Land Expedition of 1825-27. Despite being promoted Commander in 1825, Back was unemployed between 1827 and 1833 when he was appointed to command an expedition to search for another explorer, Sir John Ross, who had been missing in the Arctic since 1829. In May 1834, news reached Back that Ross was safely back in England so he decided to trace the 500-mile course of the Great Fish River which he completed successfully. Then, after mapping Montreal Island, the expedition headed home and in recognition of his achievements, Back was not only promoted Captain – by Order in Council, an honour which no other officer in the navy had received except King William IV, but additionally had the satisfaction of having the Great Fish River renamed in his honour. Once home, Back also wrote the first of his two books Narrative of the Arctic Land Expedition to the mouth of the Great Fish River which was published to enthusiastic acclaim. Appointed Captain of the converted bomb vessel Terror for the expedition to map the last sections of the uncharted coast of north America in 1836-37, Back returned home defeated by the ice and was thereafter an invalid for several years during which he wrote the second of two books on his Arctic adventures, Narrative of an Expedition in H.M.S. Terror, published in 1838.

    The harsh polar weather and conditions had taken their toll however, and the so-called 'Frozen Strait' expedition of 1836-37 proved Back's last foray beyond the Arctic Circle. Later in life, after being knighted in 1839, he became a distinguished President of the Royal Geographical Society in 1856 and received his final promotion to Rear-Admiral in 1857; he died at his London home in Portman Square on 23rd June 1878, the last surviving member of that remarkable band of Arctic pioneers.

    Since it is neither dated nor inscribed, this exciting and hitherto unknown watercolour has been the subject of intense research in order to identify both its location as well as the year in which it was executed. Many different sources have been trawled, not least Back's own accounts of the two Arctic expeditions which he himself commanded in the 1830s, and it can now be stated with a reasonable degree of certainty that the incident depicted here probably occurred only a short time into the second of those two voyages and, more precisely, in July 1836. Captain Back, under orders to map the remaining uncharted Arctic coast of Canada, sailed from England in June 1836 in the old converted bomb vessel Terror. Intending to winter in Repulse Bay, the outward passage was very stormy but between 25th and 28th July the Terror "had a pleasant run across Davis's Straits (sic) under a steady breeze from S.W.". This extract, taken from Back's Narrative of an Expedition in H.M.S. Terror (p. 25), then continues by stating that "in the evening (of 29th July) when the weather cleared (there had been fog earlier), we observed an enormous berg, the perpendicular face of which was not less than 300 feet high, and other smaller bergs..... in other directions" (p. 26). Later on the same page, the text notes that "we proceeded on our course with studding-sails set", a technical reference seen clearly on this small image of Terror, albeit in the vessel's reflection "upon a sea as smooth as an inland lake" (p. 27). A little further on, Back speaks of a ship's boat being "sent to procure fresh water from the pools formed on the surface of the.... ice" (p. 28) which gives additional credibility to the identification of this particular scene and, perhaps, provides the final confirmation.

    In the event, and despite the glorious conditions portrayed in this watercolour, the weather soon deteriorated and Terror became ice-bound in September 1836. Unable to free herself until the following July, she somehow managed to limp home and was eventually beached in a sinking condition on the shore of Lough Swilly in Ireland.
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