Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Man Proposes, God Disposes

England, the 19th of May, 1845. Sir John Franklin sets sail from Greenhithe in search for the infamous North-West Passage. Not alone in his journey, the expedition consisted of two ships: the HMS Erebus, commanded by Captain James Fitzjames and HMS Terror which was commanded by Captain Francis Crozier, Franklin's second in command. Accompanying them was a combined crew of 131 men[1], consisting of a further 21 officers and 110 men. The ships themselves were state of the art, fitted with steam engines to back up their sails and provide speed but also heat for the ships central heating system, three years worth of food, libraries to educate and amuse the crew and re-enforced hulls to help push through the ice and protect the ships from the treacherous sailing conditions. The ships were last spotted by a whaling ship in July, 1845. They were never seen alive again.With their boats trapped in ice and Franklin dead[2], Captain Crozier gave the order to abandon ship with plans to walk through the frozen wilderness to civilization. Succumbing to bad luck and tragedy, to this day the bones of these poor men lay scattered around the Arctic like confetti and the search for answers continues. Thanks to search parties sent by both the Royal Navy and Franklin's determined widow, Lady Jane, the expedition has been memorialised in writing, songs and even paintings. And that is why I'm writing this blog now, not just because the expedition is a source of never ending fascination to me, but because one of these paintings is allegedly cursed.
Studying for any exams? You might want to look away now. Don't like gore? You might want to look
away as well.

Man Proposes, God Disposes is © Royal Holloway College, University of London

Painted in 1864 by Edwin Landseer, the painting has to be one of the macabre I've seen when it comes to the subject of the Franklin Expedition. There is no glory here, no brave British boys struggling against their fate, there is only death and chaos as the Arctic triumphs. The boats torn asunder, the men devoured by the elements and voracious polar bears. The Victorians were fond of adding an element of heroism and romance to their arts but there is none to be found here. There is only tragedy and death.

© Royal Holloway College, University of London
Today it hangs in the Royal Holloway College at the University of London. At the time the colleges founder Thomas Holloway bought the painting, it was a woman-only college. I imagine it would have been considered an unusual purchase, since the Victorians still considered woman to be delicate creatures, prone to fainting and hysteria. Whatever their opinions[3], the painting was there to stay. The gallery that held the painting was also used to hold exams. At some point (possibly during the 1920's or 1930's) the rumor started that if you were to sit in front of the painting while taking an exam, you would fail. Rather than dying out, the tall tale grew into full on urban legend, an incident in the 1970's only helping it thrive, when a student refused to sit for their exam unless the painting was covered. Such a fuss was raised that the registrar was forced to cover the painting and the only thing big enough to do so was a large Union Jack. After this it became a tradition to cover the painting, one that continues even now. Another thing that continues is the evolution of the paintings myth, since some unknown and morbidly minded student decided to add a rather frightening footnote to the legend of the painting. Despite there being no records of any deaths in the exam room or related to the painting itself, it is now said that the painting has taken at least one life. The story goes that some poor soul caught sight of the painting mid-exam and made eye contact with one of the polar bears depicted therein. This event drove the poor student insane, and she killed herself in some unknown manner after scrawling "the polar bears made me do it" all over her exam paper.
Now I don't know what you think, dear reader, but in my humble opinion the painting isn't cursed. It's a sad reminder of lives lost to Victorian hubris, a reminder of terrible failure and that is what causes the students to fail their exams. It's all down to autosuggestion. The painting is a monument to failure. It's not hard to see how students might have got distracted by it, by its message of doom and failed the exam. These failures are then blamed on the painting, soon rumours start that the painting caused a few students to score badly in their exams and  finally this becomes immortalised in superstition and urban legend. Fear of the dreaded canvas continues as time passes and the 1970's incident just causes it to grow out of control, like wildfire. But eventually, someone is telling the story and it just doesn't seem scary enough anymore, so they add in an extra tale of their own. The unsubstantiated suicide. And this, while false, adds a whole new scare to the story. I'm honestly surprised that whomever was responsible for that little edit didn't also try to claim that the dead student now haunts the painting. Untrue as the suicide itself, but do you see how easy it is to add to a myth? It has been 173 years since the Franklin Expedition and it haunts us even now, in one form or another. In the bodies of those lost being found, in the ships being discovered, in the Inuit oral history that is helping solve the mystery of the lost expedition and in Edwin Landseer's dark homage to those lost.

Have you seen the painting yourself and heard it's tale before? Have you been unfortunate enough to take your exams in front of it? Leave a comment and tell me your story, or tag me on Twitter @LWall54451552. As always, I'd love to hear your stories and views.

[1]Interestingly enough, I've read at least one article that states that at least four of the crew found have been identified as women. It wasn't unusual for women to join the Royal Navy in the 1800's, most of the time you never knew they were there unless they got caught.
[2]From a note left, we know that Franklin died on the 11th of June, 1947. Although a lot of bodies have been found, and some even identified, Franklin's grave has yet to be discovered and how he died is a mystery. His grieving widow, Lady Jane Franklin, never gave up hope of finding her husband and even employed the talents of mediums, one of which claimed he had been slain by polar bears.
[3]Lady Jane was far from impressed, but then a lot of things about the expedition displeased her. The news that the poor, lost men had at some point resorted to cannibalism, for example. When she was bought this bit of news she went out of her way to ruin the reputation of John Rae, the man bringing the news.

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