Admiral Sir George Back (British, 1796-1878) HMS Terror trapped in pack ice in Frozen Strait, between 1836-1837  unframed

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Lot 166*
Admiral Sir George Back
(British, 1796-1878)
HMS Terror trapped in pack ice in Frozen Strait, between 1836-1837 unframed
Sold for £ 47,500 (US$ 61,798) inc. premium

Lot Details
Admiral Sir George Back (British, 1796-1878)
HMS Terror trapped in pack ice in Frozen Strait, between 1836-1837
signed 'G. Back' (lower right)
12.7 x 17.1cm (5 x 6 3/4in).


  • 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 home 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.

    Although it is neither dated nor inscribed, this fascinating and hitherto unknown watercolour shows H.M.S. Terror stranded in the ice of the 'Frozen Strait' during the long Arctic winter of September 1836 to July 1837. The puny little converted bomb vessel Terror, with her topmasts down and her sails tightly furled as if battened down against the elements, is depicted perched somewhat precariously upon the frozen sea and surrounded by enormous mounds – some like small mountains – of piled up pack ice like some monstrous nightmare. Also seen clearly is the canvas awning, probably made from the ship's stock of sailcloth, stretched over the forward section of the upper deck to afford at least some recreational space for the officers and men imprisoned by the merciless winter. Having left England in June 1836, the trans-Atlantic passage had been a stormy one, but the weather then improved allowing Terror to make good progress until the temperature suddenly started to drop in early September. Ice-bound in no time, she was then forced to winter in the Arctic and remained stuck until finally able to free herself in the thaw the following July. By then damaged and leaking profusely, she somehow managed to limp home and was eventually beached in a sinking condition on the shore of Lough Swilly on the northern tip of Ireland.

    The despair and homesickness of those locked in their icy prison aboard Terror is perhaps most vividly described by Back himself in the following extract from his own Narrative of an Expedition published in 1838:

    "The 14th February [1837], Valentines's day! By universal consent in the temperate regions of Europe, the harbinger of spring, the day when hope revives and the future begins to triumph over the past! Even with us, fast locked in the dreary wilderness of ice, amidst driving sleet and fog, the time was not without its influence, and I mark this day as the boundary from which we began to look forward to our final release. "How short the past, how long the future appears", is the trite and universal reflection; yet in my case the reality was exactly the reverse. When I looked back on the past, (and it was the first time that I remember to have experienced such a feeling), the time since we left England, though but eight months, seemed longer than three years of my former not unadventurous life. Days were weeks, weeks months, months almost years. As objects seen through a haze appear more distant, so to me the past had a dim and shadowy indistinctness which magnified its proportions. There were no marks to separate one day from another, no rule whereby to measure time; all was one dull and cheerless uniformity of dark and cold. But from this date, on the contrary, the successive days being occupied in active exciting employment, with continual novelties of situation, and expectation of something to come, seemed to fly with accelerated speed as each brought us nearer to the termination of our imprisonment . . . "

    We are grateful to Michael Naxton for his assistance with cataloguing this lot.
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