"Landing the Treasures, or Results of the Polar Expedition!!!," hand-colored engraving, by George Cruikshank, 1819, British Museum (britishmuseum.org)

"Landing the Treasures, or Results of the Polar Expedition!!!," hand-colored engraving, by George Cruikshank, 1819, British Museum (britishmuseum.org)

George Cruikshank

FEBRUARY 1, 2022

Scientist of the Day - George Cruikshank

George Cruikshank, a British caricaturist and satirist, died Feb. 1, 1878, at the age of 85.  Cruikshank was the most noted caricaturist of the Regency and Victorian eras, lampooning all comers, including Whigs, Tories, the Royal Family, fops and dandies, and the French, especially Napoleon.  Although he was a satirist extraordinaire, the worthy successor of William Hogarth and James Gilray, he would still have no business being included in a Scientist of the Day series, were it not for one single engraving, which is so masterful that it alone justifies Cruikshank’s inclusion here.  The print is called "Landing the Treasures, or Results of the Polar Expedition!!!," and was published on Jan. 18, 1819.  It lampoons the recently returned Arctic expedition of John Ross, who was the first of many in the Royal Navy to seek a Northwest passage to Asia.

We once wrote a post about Ross and his first Arctic voyage, which discussed some of the features of the expedition that Cruikshank would satirize, but if you do not wish to be detoured, I will briefly summarize the Ross voyage here.  He set out in the spring of 1818 for Baffin Bay in HMS Isabella and one other ship, with an officer crew that included William Edward Parry and Edward Sabine.  They made it to the north end of the Bay and encountered Lancaster Strait, which if followed would have taken them straight into the heart of the Arctic archipelago.  But Ross saw a chain of mountains blocking the strait (which he would name the Croker Mountains, after the First Secretary of the Admiralty), and, refusing to investigate further, he turned the ship around and headed home, over the protests of Parry and Sabine.  The next year Parry would sail right through the illusory Croker Mountains and make it half-way across the archipelago. So, with hindsight, Ross's voyage was a dismal failure.  But he did collect lots of specimens, and exchanged information and goods with the Inuit of northern Greenland, and even observed a new phenomenon, "red snow," which we illustrated in our post on Ross.  One of the new species of birds that he brought back was named Sabine’s gull, and another would later be named Ross's gull.

In his engraving, Cruikshank made fun of nearly all of this. No one yet knew that the Croker mountains were a mirage, or he would have had even more of a field day.  But he still had plenty of fuel for his fire.  In the scene portrayed in the engraving, Ross leads his officers and men on a triumphant parade to the British Museum at upper left (see detail, second image). All of the men have frozen-off noses and wear triangular black nose-patches.  Next in line after Ross (and his diminutive nephew James Clark Ross), several men carry a polar bear, decorated with stars in the pattern of Ursa Major (the man at the rear mutters: "It’s a good thing I lost my nose.”  They are followed by Sabine himself, who carries his namesake gull affixed to his bayonet. Two of the crew carry a barrel of red snow and a chunk of "Esquimaux wood" (see detail, third image, just above).  Both are labeled as destined for the British Museum.  Further back, a crewman carries a box on his head labeled "Moluscae for the British Museum", while he points to a granite boulder and asks who is going to carry that.  A grotesque figure at the end, whom we learn elsewhere is Jack Frost, carries a long spiraled horn with a pennant: "Lance made of horn of a sea unicorn, used in common as a walking stick” (see detail, fourth image, just below).  Eskimo dogs mill about, and the Isabella can be seen in the harbor, with a broom tied to her mast, indicating she is up for sale.

Tiny figures at top left, by the entrance to the museum, are shouting huzzas; two are identified as Sir Joseph Banks and William Leach (a naturalist) (fifth image, just below).  Banks is pleased that the crew has brought back Ursa Major in the flesh; the other two are thrilled that Jack Frost is carrying the North Pole.  The one soul not impressed, a rotund grouch at far left, comments: “I think as how we have bears, gulls, savages, chump wood, stones, and puppies enough without going to the North Pole for them."

The engraving is everything that a visual satire ought to be: funny, informative, trenchant, and extreme.  It is a shame that Cruikshank wasn't more interested in the activities of British scientists; it would have been wonderful to see his take on the decline of the Royal Society in the 1820s and the founding in 1831 of a competitive organization, the British Association for the Advancement of Science.  But alas, Cruikshank turned to illustrating books, especially those of Charles Dickens, and then in the late 1840s, he went off the deep end as a fanatical proponent of total abstinence.  He was also opposed to anti-slavery advocates and many of his cartoons are racist in the extreme. When I look at a portrait of an older Cruikshank, I see a man whom I would not want to know.  But in 1819, for a brief moment, he was just about perfect.

The 1819 engraving seems to be scarce.  We do not own it.  I have used the copy in the British Museum, and I know of two more, at Princeton and the Library of Congress. There are probably more, perhaps many more, in print collections in Great Britain and the U.S.  I have not seen a print in person, but at 562 x 230 mm (22 x 9 inches), it would undoubtedly be impressive to view.  Let me know if there is one in the area where you live.

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