Monday, 23 July 2007

A National Maritime Museum talk by Ben Pollitt

Good afternoon.

Today I’m going to talk about this splendid painting.

It’s a portrait of Princess Elizabeth, also known as the Winter Queen of Bohemia, the Queen of Hearts and the Grandmother of Europe.

The talk will take about fifteen minutes. If there are any questions, please feel free to ask me them at the end.

When we think of famous Queens of English history, aside from Queen Victoria, we tend to focus on the Tudor era, Elizabeth I in particular, and maybe the Mary’s, Mary Tudor and Mary Queen of Scots.

As a result we’ve come to sideline some equally fascinating characters, like Elizabeth Stuart here, the eldest daughter of James I and Anne of Denmark, the Queen for whom this house was built.

Elizabeth lived a long and eventful life, certainly too long and eventful to summarise in such a brief talk, the main focus of which will be on the painting itself.

So here we have it: painted by Robert Peake in 1603.

In terms of portraiture, in this period there were painters who painted small and there were painters who painted big.

While artists such as Isaac Oliver and Nicolas Hilliard painted exquisite miniatures, so small you can fit them in a broach, others like Peake were expert at producing grand scale state portraits.

And this is very much in that tradition.

It’s large and impressive.

It was painted in 1603 in Warwickshire.

1603 was an important year, the year that, with Queen Elizabeth’s death, marked the end of an era and the beginning of a new one with the coronation of James VI of Scotland as king of England.

James’ two eldest children, Henry and Elizabeth arrived later that year accompanied by their mother, Anne. Their younger brother Charles, later Charles I, stayed in Scotland for fear the journey would worsen his already poor health.

The sight of the prince and princess captured the imagination of the British public. Crowds flocked to see the arrival of the family, the first royal family since the time of Henry VIII.

The painting aims to capture something of the charm, the novelty, the optimism of this new phenomenon.

So here she is the young princess in 1603, her first year in England, aged seven.

We can be sure of the date as it’s written in the bridge in the right background, while her age is inscribed on the fan she is holding.

As with images of the former queen, the princess’ namesake and godmother, Elizabeth I, Peake has lavished attention on the costume itself, every crease and pleat of it so richly handled, emphasising the wealth, the status, the extravagant refinement of the subject.

With pearls and rubies in her hair, jewelled bows decorating her dress, its farthingale skirt fashionably hitched up in front to show the red fringed hem of her underskirt, she is every inch a princess, but a modern princess.

If we compare this painting to that of the imposing figure of Elizabeth I in the next gallery painted at the height of her power about ten years earlier. We find something entirely different.

Although in many ways a formal painting, there is nothing of that intimidating, claustrophobic atmosphere here. The figure stands openly, unguardedly in a landscape, a summer‘s landscape interestingly enough, given that she didn‘t arrive in England until the winter of 1603. The colours are vibrant and joyful: red, white and green.

There is a breath of fresh air about the work.

It was painted in the estate of the Harrington’s in Warwickshire where Elizabeth lived until the age of 12.

It was her guardian, Lord Harrington who probably commissioned the painting.

In the right background is a hunting scene, almost certainly this represents her brother Henry on horseback and his groom on foot, which links the portrait to that of Henry at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, also commissioned by Harrington, showing the young prince on the point of delivering the coup du grace to a stag held down by Harrington‘s son and Henry‘s great friend, John.

The two paintings appear to be designed as a pair and as such we cannot look at one without reference to the other. In many ways this reflects the relationship between Henry and Elizabeth themselves who was particularly close.

If we look we can make out the same arched bridge in the centre ground, also in both images the rider, Henry, is dressed in green, while his groom wears red.

Like the portrait of Elizabeth, the painting is dynamic and full of colour, even more so in fact, dominated by different shades of green, the colour of new life, reflecting the hope of a bold and confident new age.

Henry was a very bright young man who took a serious interest in the political landscape of Europe. As a militant Protestant, he was prepared to go to war for his religious beliefs. As such he was seen as the future Protestant king of England and a liberator of Protestants across the continent.

This perhaps is evident in the way Peake chooses to portray him in this image.

Harrington for instance is in the position of prayer, looks into the distance. To God perhaps, while Henry wields the sword of truth.

Religion was an extremely live issue around this time.

Two years after this painting, when Elizabeth was nine, there was the Gunpowder Plot, the attempt to blow up the King and Prince Henry in the Houses of Parliament, the intention being to kidnap Elizabeth and install her as a Catholic Queen.

The attempt failed of course, but it did leave James jittery about the future and eager to negotiate peace with the Catholics.

One way he thought of achieving this was through marrying off his children for political ends, the idea being to marry Henry to a Catholic and Elizabeth to a Protestant.

He chose for her a German, Frederick V, Elector Palatine, the Palatine was an area of south-west Germany on the Rhine.

Here he is in his thirties. He was a shy man, scholarly, and also as he grew older, a victim of increasingly frequent and intense bouts of depression.

In 1612, aged just sixteen, the same age as Elizabeth herself, he arrived London.

Like Henry, Frederick was also a militant Protestant.

Perhaps Elizabeth saw something of Henry in him, either way, from their first meeting the couple seemed to be genuinely drawn to each other.

The news of their impeding marriage however was overshadowed by tragic events as the month following Frederick’s arrival, Prince Henry, the heir to the throne, caught typhoid and died.

His last words were: “Where is my sister?”

It was a hard blow for Elizabeth, the sudden death of her brother. Nevertheless preparations for the marriage continued.

At their betrothal she dressed in black save for a few white plumes of feathers in her hat.

Anne of Denmark however did not attend the ceremony. Devastated at the loss and convinced that Henry had been poisoned, she remained at home here in Greenwich.

As an aside, it’s often said that King James gave Anne this house in 1616 by way of apology for accidentally killing her dog while out hunting.

This doesn’t quite ring true. It seems more likely that James wanted Anne to have something to take her mind off her grief for her son.

Anyway, the wedding went ahead.

The marriage, the first royal wedding for seventy years, took place on Valentine’s Day 1613 in Whitehall and was a lavish affair.

This time Queen Anne did attend and Elizabeth was dressed in white, “the fair phoenix bride” as the poet John Donne described her.

During the wedding celebrations concerts and plays were performed, including The Tempest, written the year before by Shakespeare. Some have argued that the wedding scene in the play was re-written for the event, which, though possible, cannot be proven.

Her wedding begins a new chapter in her life in which she and her husband Frederick took up the Protestant cause against the Holy Roman Empire.

In Europe she proved herself to be a powerful and subtle political personality.

Described as the most beautiful princess in Europe, she used her looks to her advantage.

Never forgetting the legacy of Henry she became an important figurehead for the Protestant cause and to her followers came to be known as the “Queen of Hearts”.

She remained on the continent until she came to England in 1661 in the reign of her nephew Charles II and died in what is now Leicester Square in the following year.

Here she is, in her prime, looking regal and formidable.

As a final word, we remember Elizabeth less through what she achieved in her life than through her descendants.

She bore 20 children in as many years, ten survived.

Her daughter Sophia was the mother of George I which makes Elizabeth the only link between the Tudors and Stuarts and today’s royal family.

In fact, order to be king or queen you must, by the Act of Settlement, prove to be her descendant.

She was not only the grandmother of English royal family but in the 1930’s someone calculated that her descendants were ruling sovereigns in ten European countries, making her the “grandmother of Europe”.

Thursday, 1 March 2007


A National Maritime Museum Talk by Ben Pollitt

Good afternoon and thank you for coming.

The title of the talk is “The Bear Hunt and Early Arctic Whaling”.

It will last about fifteen minutes.

Let’s start off by looking at the painting, “A Bear Hunt in the Arctic”.

It was painted by the Dutch artist Wigerus Vitringa in 1696.

On the left is a Dutch whaling flute, a flute being a cheap and efficient merchant ship of the 17th century.

Behind it is a high wall of ice, most probably an iceberg.

In the centre is an ice floe where a circle of hunters surround a polar bear, intending to kill it for its skin and its meat.

Beyond is another similar whaling vessel with two more dimly visible on the distant horizon.

In the foreground a bear is devouring a man while his companions look on.

Some throw spears at it, others seem less concerned, confused perhaps, frightened, either way, leaving the poor man to his fate.

Equally compelling is the landscape itself dominated by the grey tones of the clouds and the sky and the sea and the ice.

The chill in the air is almost palpable.

Vitringa used a number of techniques to get this sense of atmosphere across.

For one thing the viewpoint is low, about two thirds of the canvas is made up of sky. This is typical of Dutch marine painting of the 17th century.

It created challenges for artists, in particular, capturing light and depth, testing their skills at painting the sky a notoriously tricky business and also demanding a sophisticated understanding of perspective.

Vitringa handles both very well. The sky is beautifully handled, the sun obscured by the weight of the cloud, while also getting across this sense of depth.

Notice how those distant objects appear less distinct, more bluish than they would be if nearby.

It’s a technique called aerial or atmospheric perspective.

It is also a very well-organised painting.

It draws us in step by step.

The outline of the flute with its three masts shadowed by that iceberg, its form echoed again firstly by its companion ship to the right and once more by the faint outline of the ship on the horizon.

Like the ships in the background, the two whaleboats in the foreground reflect one another and help focus our attention on the centre of the action here, the ice floe on which the man is being attacked by a bear.

The outstretched arms of the two standing figures in the boats, as well as the spear captured in mid-flight, also serving as visual pointers.

Then to balance things out, we have these carefully arranged ice floes.

On the floe to the left we see the artist’s signature and the date of the painting.

1696 was an important year for Vitringa personally.

That year he was invited to become a member of the guild of St Luke in Alkmaar, a painter’s guild that only recognised masters were allowed to join.

Here's a picture of the man himself.

A man of many talents, as well as being a successful painter, he was also a doctor of law and a poet.

He was born in Leeuwarden in Friesland, a coastal region of Holland famous for its maritime heritage.

Perhaps it was his familiarity with the sea that led him to specialise in painting marine subjects.

That said, it seems very unlikely he would have witnessed this scene first-hand.

The brown polar bear is a bit of a giveaway.

Nevertheless it is an appealing painting with a lot of strong features.

What makes it particularly special, though, is the subject matter.

What on earth were the Dutch doing travelling all the way to the Arctic Circle?

The vessels as I said are whaling ships.

Whaling has existed for thousands of years.

The Vikings were famous whalers.

After them in the Middle-Ages came the Basques. The most skilled whalers in Europe and the first to make an organized industry of it.

They hunted whales mainly for their blubber which would be used as fuel for oil lamps and to make soap.

They also hunted whales for their baleen, the hard fibres attached to the upper jaw of the whale, the hairs on which are used to filter out foodstuff like plankton.

Now baleen has many commercial uses, both hard and elastic, it was used to make combs, for the ribs of parasols and to stiffen parts of women’s dresses, like corsets, hence the word basque for a tight-fitting corset.

By the 16th century, the British were getting in on the action, employing Basque whalers on their ships.

From around the 1570’s, English sailors were setting out from Hull to hunt for whales in the Arctic, particularly around an island north of Norway, called Spitsbergen, it is now called Svalbard.

The Dutch were soon to catch up with the British and in fact overtake them.

In the 1590’s the Dutch explorer Willem Barendsz’ reached Spitsbergen and then further east to Nova Zembla, now called Novaya Zemlya.

Unfortunately, tragically, his ships got stuck in the ice in Nova Zembla and Barendz was forced to spend the winter on the island, 500 miles from the North Pole.

Accounts were written about the expedition and the terrible conditions Barendsz and his crew had to endure, many froze to death, others died of scurvy and many were driven mad by the sunless days of the Arctic winter.

Finally with the coming of the spring, the ice melted and they were able to journey back.

Within a week of their departure, however, Barendz died.

Here is a picture of a painting you can find in the collection in the main building, showing Barendz's death surrounding by his few surviving crew members.

The story obviously captured the imagination of the Dutch.

Here is a print from one of those early accounts of the expedition, detailing the first days of their entrapment, before the sun set.

We see several battles with bears, including in the bottom left hand corner the killing and skinning of a bear as they hunted for much needed provisions to help them survive the long ordeal they faced.

One can also see the makeshift house they wintered in which stood for 300 years and became known as Barentz House.

As with The Bear Hunt, something that is missing from the image are pictures of whales and walruses which they saw many of.

In fact it was the expedition’s reports on the abundance of whales that really kick started the Dutch whaling industry.

In 1612 the Dutch sent out ships with Basque whalers in their crews to Spitsbergen.

Of course, the British were none too happy about this.

But after a few minor skirmishes at sea, an agreement was reached. It was decided that the Dutch would have control of the North-West side of Spitsbergen, the British the West.

The Dutch were both extremely efficient and had strong financial support and so, within a couple of decades, had cornered the market.

The story of early Arctic whaling follows similar trends to what is happening in the modern day fishing industry; with whalers hunting one area to the point of depletion and then moving on to another.

It began as a coastal operation. But the whales soon got wise though, shied away from the shore forcing their hunters to follow them into the open sea.

Now when the whales would be caught they were stripped of their blubber and baleen on board ship. These would be brought back to be treated in Holland.

By the middle of the 17th century a quarter of Amsterdam was given over to these rendering works, where the blubber was boiled in huge furnaces to extract the oil from it, making it one of the smelliest cities in Europe, but also one of the richest and, with its streets lit by two thousand lamps fuelled by whale fat, one of the safest too.

Of course as the whalers sailed further North conditions got harder.

Ships had to be reinforced, given an extra layer of planks under the waterline and extra beams in the bow to resist the pressure of the ice floes.

Notice the spar over the stern for added protection.

Navigation was a perilous enterprise.

Distances are deceptive in the Arctic Circle, the air is so clear it often happened that sailors thought they were closer to land than they were.

Sometimes in overcast conditions, like in the painting here, it was difficult to distinguish the sky from the sea, the ice from the cloud.

And so as one could not trust one’s eyes but had to turn to reason and calculation.

It was an exact and exacting science. One in ten would be wrecked and many more would get trapped in the ice and run the risk of suffering a similar fate to Willem Barendz.

Despite these difficulties Dutch whaling thrived, employing at its height nearly ten thousand people.

In 1696, 428 whales were caught, generating over 17,000 casks of blubber.

(Interestingly, perhaps, that is less than half the number of whales the Japanese caught last year, for so-called scientific purposes)

On one level the painting is a tribute to these brave Dutch sailors who journeyed to such extreme latitudes.

But still that doesn’t quite fit.

Here in comparison is a pen-painting by Adriaen van Salm called “Whalers in the Ice”, painted slightly earlier.

The sails are unfurled and billowing dramatically in the wind, in the right hand corner you can see the men dragging a whale onto the shore in a concerted effort. Man triumphant over nature.

A far more uplifting image of whalers at work than The Bear Hunt, in which the men seem slightly puny and ineffectual in the face of these elemental forces.

Perhaps the reason for the painting’s more subdued tone lies closer to home.

In 1696 the Dutch Republic, along with England and Spain, were at war with France.

This was the War of the Grand Alliance, or the Nine-Year War which had cost millions of lives and was soon to come to an end.

There is I think one slight clue that perhaps suggests Vitrunga had these events in mind when painting the subject.

Looking again at the print of Willem Barendz expedition from about a hundred years earlier we notice in the top left image a difference in the way in which the bears are being killed.

The whalers here are using muskets.

The most probable explanation for the use of spears is that every gun was needed to fight the war at home.

Whalers, incidentally, were immune from national service.

They were not immune from the conflict altogether, though, as the war saw the rise of privateering, state sponsored piracy.

So, on top of being stranded, wrecked, frozen, or eaten by polar bears, the whalers also ran the risk of being raided by the French.

Perhaps then this reflective and mournful quality that we see in the painting is a comment on the war-weary state that Holland and indeed most of Europe was in at the time.

However Vitringa intended the painting to be read, as a tribute to the courage of these whalers, perhaps men the artist knew personally, had grown up with in Friesland even, or as a comment on the effects of this long and protracted war, one thing is for certain.

There is something about the painting that speaks to us more directly than many other treatments of the subject. There is an honesty in the painting, an honesty which admits this ambiguous relationship man has with nature, both fearless and afraid, on the left the Dutch whaling fluute, standing tall and proud against the iceberg, on the right the men frozen in fear at the sight of their fallen companion.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

The Franklins in Tasmania

A National Maritime Museum Talk by Ben Pollitt

The title of today’s talk is the Franklins in Tasmania.

It will last about fifteen minutes.

The early colonial history of Tasmania is a difficult subject to talk about.

For one thing it represents one of the more shameful event in British history.

It is also an episode which we in England know very little about.

This is not true for the Tasmanians for whom what happened to the Aboriginal population is still a very sensitive social and political issue.

To simplify matters, I shall divide the talk into two halves. I will in a minute talk about the exhibits we have here on display.

First, though I would like to give a bit of historical context.

Tasmania, like Australia, was first discovered by the Dutch back in the sixteenth century.

In 1642 a Dutchman by the name of Abel Tasman was the first European to set foot on the island.

Tasman did not encounter any of the island’s indigenous population face to face, though he did come across signs of human habitation.

One of these signs was a tree, a tall fruit tree, on the trunk of which were hacked out notches.

The thing was, the gaps between the notches were so wide that Tasman and his crew for some reason could only conclude that the island was populated by giants.

And so, without further ado, they all scurried back to their ship and sailed off again and it would not be for another one hundred and fifty years before the Europeans would return.

That, of course, was in 1778 when James Cook arrived on his third expedition.

Cook was accompanied by the expedition’s artist. Not William Hodges whose work we see around us today, but the equally talented John Webber.

Webber was the first European to paint the Tasmanian Aborigines. Here is an engraver after Webber’s original of an Aboriginal man painted in 1784.

Let me just say a couple of things about the image.

Firstly, we can see the influence of British portrait painting of the time.

This is the age of Reynolds and Gainsborough and Webber’s choice of three quarter profile pose with the sitter staring out at us conforms to the conventions of portraiture of the time.

There is also perhaps an underlying philosophical influence at play here.

This was the time of writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau who believed that people of so-called primitive societies lived closer to nature and so led a more vital and authentic existence. There is certainly something of the ‘noble savage’ in Webber’s picture.

Putting to one side the artistic and ideological baggage that Webber has brought to the image, we are still left with a sympathetic view of the subject who looks straight out at us as we look back at him, eye-to-eye, like equals.

After Cook left, Tasmania followed Australia in becoming a penal colony.

The first convicts arrived on the island in 1812.

Over the next few decades Tasmania, or Van Dieman’s land as it was then called, became synonymous with hell on earth.

The penal system was brutally harsh and completely disproportionate to the sort of crimes the convicts had committed, such as poaching and petty thievery.

It was not just convicts who made the journey over, all manner of settlers arrived: whalers, farmers, storekeepers, soldiers... For them, so far away from their homes, the island must have been an extremely alienating environment.

Those that bore the worst of it, though, were the native inhabitants.

For the Tasmanian Aborigines the British were invaders, pure and simple.

And the British did little to change their opinion.

They didn't learn their language.

They didn't try to understand their system of government.

They didn't try to engage them in trade.
Instead they treated them with contempt, calling them "Crows".

Also, and importantly, about ninety percent of the settlers and obviously the convicts encountered were men.

These were not shy and retiring types.

In fact, there are several recorded instances of Europeans stealing Aboriginal women from their families and communities and using them like slaves.

In retaliation those close to the women would kill a portion of the European’s livestock or burn down their crops.

Taking matters into their own hands the settlers in response would kill not just one but dozens of Aborigines, including women and children.

The British authorities were in a difficult position.

They could punish these atrocities and bring the perpetrators to justice.

By doing so they, however, they would also bring to public notice the difficulties the settlers were having with the native population which would probably have prompted the financial investors in the colony to back out.

In the end, they decided to support the settlers.

In 1828 martial law was declared. The army took control and the white settlers were given firearms ostensibly to defend themselves against the Aborigines.

And so began what came to be known as the Black War.

By 1830, as a result of war and the various diseases the Europeans had brought with them, from an estimated original population of 5,000, only 300 Aborigines remained.

These were then rounded up and sent off to an island north-east of the mainland called Flinders Island, where we will leave them for the time being.

Now turning to the exhibits in front of us, I would particularly draw your attention to these two Staffordshire figurines of Lady Jane Franklin and her husband Sir John Franklin.

Sir John was a famous figure in Victorian England.

A veteran of the battle of Trafalgar, he went on to become the greatest Arctic explorer of his age.
Like many before him he tried several times to find the North-West passage through the Canadian Arctic connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific.

His final attempt ended tragically and mysteriously. He and his crew perished, their bodies were never recovered.

Lady Jane became a woman of some reknown herself for her untiring efforts to find her husband’s body, efforts which brought her close to bankruptcy.

So there they stand, the loyal and dutiful wife and the brave and heroic husband; the epitome of Victorian values.

They come into our story as Sir John was governor of Tasmania from 1837 to 1842.

At that time less than a hundred Aborigines were still alive; malnutrition and despair having quickened their decline on Flinders Island.

It is arguable whether the Franklin’s could have prevented their final destruction.

One thing is for certain, the couple were interested in Aboriginal culture.

They asked one of their employees to collect what they called ‘curiosities’ from the native inhabitants and some of these are on display here.

Others went to the British Museum, the Natural History Museum and Fitz-William in Cambridge.

Only a handful of items here are actually from Tasmania: these spears and the sticks attached to them.

We know the spears are from Tasmania as they are pointed at both ends. Spears from the mainland have a thick butt to facilitate the use of spear-throwers. There were no spear-throwers in Tasmania.

They were used by men to kill large mammals, kangaroos, euros, wallabies and seals.

We can tell the sticks are from Tasmania because of their bulbous ends. They would be used as digging sticks to dig up roots but also double-up as weapons, projectiles to throw at birds or skull-crushers for close-range conflict.

Although perhaps an unassuming collection, what we have here actually represents a significant portion of the technological resources available to the Aborigines.

Here is an illustration of various Tasmanian Aboriginal tools painted by a French artist in a scientific expedition of the early 1800's.

Here we see the spears and the digging sticks as well as containers made from animal skins and a necklace made from shells.

Incidentally, these necklaces had ceremonial as well as decorative functions as in each of the shells were placed the ashes of the wearer’s ancestors.

Cremation, it is worth noting, was an extremely important part of Aborigine life.

And so museum back in England were taking an active interest in collecting and preserving these artefacts. It seems bizarre then that so little was done to protect the interests of the people themselves.

A clue to why this could have happened lies in this painting here of a group of Aborigines in Flinders Island painted by the artist William Gould.

Gould was a former convict who was sent out for stealing paint.

He was a very talented wildlife painting and certainly capable of painting a more flattering image of his subjects than this.

Here, in contrast to Webber’s painting, we look down on the men draped in blankets, their facial features grotesquely caricatured, huddling together like a group of monkeys.

The analogy is quite deliberate and mark the painting out as an early image of racist propaganda.

In the middle of the nineteenth century racist theories were becoming popular in educated circles in England

One book in particular was much talked about: Robert Knox’s The Races of Men.
Knox argued that humankind was not divided into races, but species and some species were closer to the animal kingdom than others.

Knox being English, the Saxon type of course was the superior species and cited as the most inferior and so closest to the animal kingdom were the Tasmanian Aborigines.

One of the reasons given for their inferiority was that they had brought themselves to the point of extinction!

Inspired by these ridiculous theories scientists came over to Tasmania to examine the people themselves.

So, after having their families wiped and their homeland taken from them, the last Aborigines were subjected to the pokings and proddings of scientists who looked on them more as specimens than as human beings.

Particularly heinous were cases in which scientists collected the remains of those who had died, remains which should, of course, have been cremated and sent them back to Eurpope.

Here is a photograph of the last Tasmanian Aborigine, a woman called Truganini.

She died in 1876.

Realising what was happening to the bodies of her compatriots, before she died she said to the nurse caring for her, “Please, don’t let them cut me up.”

Against her wishes, though, her skeleton was later dug up and became the most popular exhibit at the Tasmanian Museum where it remained until 1947.

1947, a significant date, a year or so after images of the Holocaust had been broadcast around the world when the racial theories that underlined the popularity of the exhibit had become extremely unpalatable.

The story does not quite end there, for among the curiosities the Franklins asked to be collected were human remains.

In fact, a skull which Lady Franklin sent to the Natural History Museum has only in recent months and after several years of pressure from the descendants of those stolen Aboriginal women been sent back to Tasmania to be cremated.

So, in conclusion, the first European contact was in 1778. In 1876 the last Tasmanian Aborigine died.

That’s less than a hundred years, making the destruction of the Tasmanian Aborigines the fastest extinction of a cultural group in history.
A shameful episode, indeed.