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Rare painting of 19th century British voyage to Canadian Arctic returns home

01/03/2012 05:06 EST | Updated 03/04/2012 05:12 EST
GATINEAU, Qc - A delicate watercolour showing a group of British sailors rowing over the reflection of a cathedral-like Arctic iceberg has returned to Canada nearly 200 years after it was painted.

Their ship anchored nearby — HMS Terror — was a famous vessel in both the War of 1812 and its subsequent voyages to map out and lay claim to the Arctic, including the legendary Franklin Expedition.

The small work done in pale strokes of peach, blue and white was painted by Admiral Sir George Back, an important Arctic explorer who wrote in his 1836 diary about coming upon just such a skyscraper of an iceberg.

His crew took off from the historic HMS Terror to chip off chunks for water. In the painting, walruses look on, while barely perceptible sea birds fly in the foreground.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization acquired the rare piece at a private auction in London last September for $60,000. It had been owned by members of Back's family since he willed it to his family in the 19th century. The watercolour went on public display for the first time Tuesday at the museum across the river from Parliament Hill.

David Morrison, director of archaeology and history at the museum, called the acquisition "thrilling" because of its historical significance.

"In a period before photography, this is the best idea we have of what this ... chapter of Canadian history, the whole exploration of the Arctic which is really a 19th and early 20th century story with the British navy," said Morrison.

"This is the best view of it, this is thrilling stuff, and it's how Canada got the Arctic. The British claimed sovereignty over the Arctic by virtue of having explored and claimed it, and they gave to Canada in 1880 their sovereignty rights to the Canadian Arctic.

"It's because of people like Back that these are part of Canada today."

Before HMS Terror was dispatched to the Antarctic and then the Canadian Arctic for exploratory voyages, it had a battle career as part of the British navy's fleet during the War of 1812. In one of the most famous episodes, it was part of the siege of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore — a bombardment that helped inspire the American anthem The Star Spangled Banner.

During the expedition that Back depicted in the painting, the ship was badly damaged when ice pushed it 12 metres up the side of a cliff, and then later when it was crunched by an iceberg. It barely made it back to England.

"(Back's) one of the most important explorers in the history of the Canadian Arctic, one of those great 19th-century ship captains who charted the islands and figured out the Northwest Passage, probably second only to his former boss Sir John Franklin," said Morrison.

The Terror's last voyage was as part of the renowned expedition led by Sir John Franklin in 1845, along with HMS Erebus. The boats became trapped in the ice somewhere around Baffin Bay, and the crew members were forced to abandon them. None of the men survived, and the search continues for remains of the ships.

The watercolour will be on display until April, and is then expected to be used by the Canadian War Museum as part of its exhibitions this year on the War of 1812.

Note to readers: DELETES extraneous word 'in' in lede

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