I had an arctic weekend. It wasn’t particularly cold here in Salem (rather the opposite), but since I was in a Santa Claus frame of mind, I thought I’d follow up my St. Nicholas post with a historical look at the North Pole, and that led to full immersion in the Arctic. This northern orientation (and two great books: Robert McGhee’s Imagining the Arctic: the Human History of the Arctic World; Francis Spufford’s I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination) gave me new insights into lots of things, but for the sake of imagery, I’m going to go for arctic animals: great white beasts of the frozen north.
Before they set out to explore all the unknown corners of the world in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europeans had lots of ideas about the North which had been passed down from ancient geographical writers like Pytheas, Strabo and Pliny the Elder. The typical Renaissance endeavor involved the engagement, verification and/or dismissal of classical knowledge and for the Arctic, nothing was more influential than the posthumous publication of Gerhard Mercator’s world map, which portrayed the North Pole as a magnetic black rock surrounded by a clearly-marked Northwest Passage. In England, this inspired the erection of “arctic poles” all over the country and Martin Frobisher’s three voyages, from 1576-78, to Meta Incognito (the “unknown limits”; really southern Baffin Island, though Frobisher claimed the entire Arctic for England).
Gerhard Mercator, “Septentrionalium Terrarum descriptio”, from his posthumously published atlas, Atlantis pars altera. Enlarged fascimile, Historic Collection, Princeton University: part of a Princeton digital exhibition, Of Maps and Men. In Pursuit of a Northwest Passage.
Imagine the surprise (or perhaps the expectation) when Frobisher’s men found a unicorn washed up on a Baffin Island beach, or rather a “Sea Unicorn”, as they referred to the creature. This fabled creature seemed to confirm that they were somewhere special, and previously elusive. From this first discovery, northern fish and fauna were always described and depicted as especially monstrous, especially large, especially white. From narwhals to polar bears, from foxes to hares, these were almost-otherworldly creatures. The Frobisher “Sea Unicorn” is pictured below, from George Best’s account of the second voyage, followed by two relatively modern caricatures of really large Arctic creatures.
Anonymous drawing of a BIG arctic hare, c. 1890, Smithsonian Institution, and Charles Sidney Raleigh, “Chilly Observation”, 1889, Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Arctic Hare (Lepus articus) is the largest North American rabbit, but it’s not that big! And of course it’s the same for the polar bear: these images convey a sense of the (literal) diminution of man in the vast, frozen Arctic. I’m quite taken with the hare, so much so that I even “adopted” one through the World Wildlife Fund (I figured that polar bears have more advocates). They are grey in the summer, but apparently turn into white fuzzy balls in the arctic winter.
Arctic hares in their natural habitat; South African Greenpeace “white is the new green” ad, 2010.
For an Arctic animal in scale, there is no better image than William Bradford’s An Arctic Summer: Boring through the Pack in Melville Bay (1871) with what looks like an arctic fox walking along the ice undisturbed or unaware of the nearby ship. Yet man is still humbled–isn’t that a piece of a wreck on the shore? Bradford was a Massachusetts artist whose work, based on his own observations while on an 1869 polar expedition, figured heavily in the Peabody Essex exhibit Journey to the Ends of the Earth: Painting the Polar Landscape a couple of years ago. More of Bradford’s paintings, as well as amazing photographs from his illustrated book, The Arctic Region: Illustrated with Photographs taken on an Expedition to Greenland can be found at the Clark Art Institute.
William Bradford, An Arctic Summer: Boring through the Pack in Melville Bay, 1871, Metropolitan Museum of Art; cast earthenware Arctic fox, Hornsea Pottery Co., 1956, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.