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A precious painting by Admiral Sir George Back resurfaces at the Canadian Museum of Civilization
The small work by Admiral Sir George Back shows HMS Terror anchored near a cathedral-like iceberg in the waters around Baffin Island, while a smaller boat is rowed nearby. ©CMC/MCC, Photo: Marie-Louise Deruaz.
GATINEAU, QC.- The Canadian Museum of Civilization has acquired at auction in Britain a dramatic watercolour by the nineteenth-century Arctic explorer and artist Admiral Sir George Back, whose drawings and paintings are recognized as an invaluable visual record of the early exploration of the Canadian Arctic. The painting depicts an immense iceberg towering one hundred metres above the illustrious British vessel HMS Terror and one of its boats in the waters off the southeast coast of Baffin Island.

“This is an exciting acquisition for the Museum,” said Mark O’Neill, President and CEO of the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation. “Admiral Sir George Back played an important role in the British voyages that laid the foundation for Canada’s Arctic sovereignty. Now all Canadians will have access to this previously unknown record of a key episode in our shared legacy”.

Few vessels have played so important a role in Canadian history as HMS Terror. Its first Arctic expedition in 1836–1837, commanded by Sir George Back, was beset with difficulties: trapped in ice for 10 months, the Terror was at one point pushed by ice more than 12 metres up the side of a cliff. By the time the badly damaged ship returned to Britain, it was close to sinking.

Researchers believe that Back’s watercolour, unknown to historians until its recent discovery in a private collection, depicts an encounter described in his diary in 1836: “We observed an enormous berg, the perpendicular face of which was not less than 300 feet high.”

Nearly a decade after Back’s expedition, HMS Terror returned to the Arctic, along with its sister vessel HMS Erebus. This was the doomed expedition led by Sir John Franklin, during which he and all 128 of his crewmen perished. Trapped in ice, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus were abandoned by their crews and eventually sank.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization, with assistance from many Canadians who support the acquisition of important artifacts through the National Collection Fund, purchased the painting, which measures approximately 14.5 by 22.5 centimetres, on September 13, 2011 at an auction in London, England. It cost £37,250 (approximately $60,000 Canadian).

The painting is on display in the Museum’s Special Exhibitions Corridor until April, 2012.

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