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Pre-eminent set of daguerreotypes of Franklin's lost expedition to the Northwest passage
Pre-eminent set of daguerreotypes of Franklin's lost expedition to the Northwest passage Copyright Credit: Sotheby's
Copyright Credit: Sotheby's
Copyright Credit: Sotheby's

Lost Arctic expedition's faces revealed: Rare portraits of Franklin's ill-fated crew up for auction

By Theo Farrant
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A haunting set of portraits being sold at Sotheby's offer a fascinating glimpse into a tragic chapter of Arctic exploration history.

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A unique collection of 14 stunning photographs taken aboard the ill-fated Her Majesty's Ship, the Erebus, are going under the hammer at Sotheby's in London. 

These three-quarter length daguerreotype portraits were taken on 15-17 May 1845, a mere three days before Sir John Franklin embarked on a fateful journey through the Northwest Passage, accompanied by 129 others who would never return.

Tragically, the expedition consisting of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror was met with disaster after the two ships became icebound, under circumstances still not fully understood to this day. 

The portraits, hailing from the dawn of photography, are the first and last of Franklin and his crew, and shed light on the human aspect of this enigmatic expedition.

Housed in a grand book-form morocco case adorned with opulent gold shell embellishments, the collection is expected to fetch between €175,000 - €234,000 (£150,000 and £200,000) at auction. 

The sale opens online starting from 7 September 2023, with in-person viewings running from 15-19 September. 

Below is a selection of images from this remarkable collection, accompanied by descriptions that illuminate the stories and individuals captured within each frame.

Credit: Sotheby's
Sir John Franklin, born 1786, Captain, HMS Erebus, and expedition leaderCredit: Sotheby's
The son of a Lincolnshire merchant, Franklin took an interest in seafaring from a young age, and first secured a Royal Navy appointment on HMS Polyphemus. In 1819, he was chosen to lead the infamous Coppermine expedition, whose survivors were forced to eat lichen, even attempting to eat their own leather footwear (thus earning Franklin the nickname “the man who ate his boots”). In 1837, he was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Van Dieman’s Land, though he was removed from office in 1843. By the time of the expedition to the Northwest Passage, Franklin was 59 years old, and had to quell doubts about his physical fitness for such a venture. Moreover, at the time this daguerreotype was taken, he had recently recovered from a bout of influenza.
Sotheby's
Credit: Sotheby's
Charles Hamilton Osmer, born 1799, Paymaster Purser, HMS ErebusCredit: Sotheby's
Between 1825 and 1828, he served on an expedition led by Frederick Beechey to conduct scientific work in the Bering Strait. Fitzjames was initially rather scathing about Osmer, calling him a “stupid old man”, but later revised this opinion after the two had spent time together, writing that the Purser was “delightful… as merry-hearted as any young man, full of quaint dry sayings, always good-humoured, always laughing, never a bore… he is a gentleman”.
Sotheby's
Credit: Sotheby's
Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, born 1796, Captain, HMS TerrorCredit: Sotheby's
The only officer from the Terror included in this series of portraits. Crozier, born in Ireland, volunteered for the Royal Navy at age 13, serving on HMS Briton. He was appointed second-in-command of Ross’s 1839 expedition to the Antarctic, during which voyage he commanded the Terror, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1843 for his work on magnetism. Though considered to lead the Franklin expedition, his Irish ancestry and relatively humble origins counted against him. After Franklin’s death, Crozier took command of the expedition. The SPRI set of daguerreotypes does not include Crozier’s portrait.
Sotheby's
Credit: Sotheby's
James Fitzjames, born 1813, Commander, HMS ErebusCredit: Sotheby's
Fitzjames was of illegitimate birth and his friends and relatives took pains to conceal his origins. He entered the Royal Navy aged 12, and eventually served on the Euphrates Expedition between 1834 and 1837. He became a highly qualified gunnery lieutenant, serving aboard HMS Ganges during the Egyptian-Ottoman War (1839-40), and then aboard HMS Cornwallis during the First Opium War—during which time he developed a reputation for reckless bravery. Sir John Barrow, a prime mover of the Franklin Expedition, initially campaigned for Fitzjames to lead it, though Franklin and Sir Francis Crozier were eventually appointed instead. After Franklin’s death on 11 June 1847, Crozier became expedition leader and Fitzjames second in command.
Sotheby's
Credit: Sotheby's
Stephen Samuel Stanley, Chief Surgeon, HMS ErebusCredit: Sotheby's
Stanley entered the navy in June 1838, first serving aboard HMS Cornwallis, where he met Fitzjames. He signed up for the Franklin Expedition upon Fitzjames’ recommendation, and wed Mary Ann Windus just ten days before leaving for the Northwest Passage. Fitzjames characterised Stanley as “very good-natured and obliging, and very attentive to our mess”, though he could not resist a touch of Dickensian caricature in his pen portrait of the expedition’s Chief Surgeon—calling him “rather inclined to be good-looking, but fat, with jet-black hair, very white hands, which are always abominably clean, and the shirt-sleeves tucked up; giving one unpleasant ideas that he would not mind cutting one's leg off—‘if not sooner'."
Sotheby's
Credit: Sotheby's
Harry Duncan Spens Goodsir, born 1819, Assistant Surgeon, HMS ErebusCredit: Sotheby's
Himself the son of a medical practitioner, Goodsir studied medicine in Edinburgh and became a member of the Royal Medical Society. Harry collaborated with his brother John on his pioneering work on cell theory, and his final communication was a paper entitled “On the anatomy of Forbesia”, transmitted from Greenland in June 1845. Harry’s younger brother Robert joined two of the Victorian expeditions sent out to find Franklin and his lost men.
Sotheby's
Credit: Sotheby's
Henry Foster Collins, born 1818, Second Master, HMS ErebusCredit: Sotheby's
Fitzjames’ description brings to life the Second Master of the Erebus as one of the most eccentric characters amongst the expedition party: “the very essence of good nature, and I may say good humour—but he is mad, I am sure—for he squints to himself with a painful expression of countenance when he is thinking—(or thinking of nothing) and I can get no work out of him, though ever so willing he may be—yet he is not a bore nor a nuisance—but a nonentity.”
Sotheby's
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