Linda Hall Library
Science Engineering Technology

Stephen Pearce, an English portrait painter, was born Nov. 16, 1819. One of Pearce’s most memorable group portraits is called The Arctic Council (first image). It was painted in 1851, and it shows many of the great figures of British Arctic exploration, supposedly deliberating about what to do next in the search for the lost Franklin expedition, which had departed in 1845 in its search for a Northwest Passage and disappeared from the face of the Arctic archipelago. The painting is in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) of London.

In fact, there never was an Arctic Council, and this meeting never took place. So Pearce had to show considerable initiative in composing it. He first painted individual portraits of the ten figures included (most of these survive in the NPG), and then he copied the individual portraits into the meeting room setting, with most of the poses unaltered. For example, we see above Pearce’s portraits of Edward Parry, who made four Arctic ventures in the 1820s (second image); John Clark Ross, who discovered the magnetic North Pole (third image); and John Barrow Jr., son of the man who launched the first Arctic voyage back in 1818, and now Keeper of Admiralty Records (and the person who commissioned the group portrait) (fourth image). It is not too hard to find them in their group setting. We have featured two other figures who appear in this painting as Scientists of the Day, and you will find their Pearce portraits as part of those entries: Frederick William Beechey and Edward Sabine. For a fuller account of the search for Franklin, see our 2008 exhibition, Ice: A Victorian Romance.

The final image is a self-portrait of Pearce, also in the National Portrait Gallery.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to ashworthw@umkc.edu.