Chasing the polar bear

Chasing the polar bear
Images of polars bears across time
13 May 2015

As a child my favourite animal was the polar bear. It may have been because it exemplified the polar opposite of my experience growing up in steamy, tropical Brisbane. It may have also been the not-so-subliminal connection to ice-cream through the image of the frosty Paul’s polar bear. Whatever it was, it has persisted. Although, a love of animals in all forms has grown throughout my life as I’ve become more aware of the depredations humans enforce on the animal kingdom.  

Man’s use and abuse of animals has taken many forms. From hunting as a ‘sport’ or for food, through to the appropriation of images of animals to sell products. From ice-cream and rum to cola, polar bears have been seen as fair game. Often it seems that the first reaction of explorers encountering the natural world was not to observe and to marvel but to shoot and devour. Certainly this was the case when Constantine John Phipps (1744–1792) in his polar exploration leading the Racehorse and the Carcass first encountered the White bear in 1773–74. Phipps scientifically described the polar bear as a separate species and gave it its current Latin name Ursus maritimus or sea bear in his 1774 account A Voyage Towards the North Pole. He observed that they “were found in great numbers on the main land of Spitsbergen” and on the ice around it. He continued, “We killed several with our musquets, and the seamen ate of their flesh, though exceeding coarse.” One bear weighed 610 pounds (nearly 280 kg) “without head, skin or entrails.” Phipps, a school friend of Joseph Banks at Eton, had earlier voyaged with him to Newfoundland and Labrador in the summer of 1766 but they didn't encounter polar bears. 

Coincidentally, this is also the voyage on which midshipman Horatio Nelson (1758–1805), serving on the Carcass, decided to kill and skin a polar bear as a present for his father. Fortunately for the polar bear, Nelson’s gun misfired and only a rift opening in the ice saved him from what might have been a short and not very illustrious career. Freed slave Olaudah Equiano (c.1745–1797), who became the first African to visit the Arctic, was also with Phipps. In 1789 Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa as he was later known, published in London what became a famous autobiography and his advocacy significantly contributed to the campaign to abolish slavery—see also Abolishing Slavery On Image at a Time

But, back to the bears. The first recorded sighting of the polar bear was in 1556, more than two centuries before Phipps encounter, when English navigator William Burrough (1537–1598) and his small party on his ship Serchthrift saw a local hunting party in Novaya Zemlya, (an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean to the north of Russia), pursue and then kill a polar bear. Not a very propitious start to the polar bear’s relations with European explorers.  Nearly 30 years later an English expedition led by John Davis (1550?–1605), whose ships the Sunshine and Moonshine were searching for the fabled North-West Passage, saw four polar bears on what became known as Baffin Island at 66°40' or just above the Arctic Circle in August 1585. He described them as being of “a monstrous bigness.”   

Twenty years later the published account of the expedition led by William Barents (c. 1550–1597), the Dutch cartographer and explorer, to Novaya Zemlya in an attempt to determine the existence of the North-West Passage was published and featured engravings of polar bears being killed but also attacking the crew.

The first recorded European images of the polar bear only began to appear in the seventeenth century and one of the most extraordinary was that probably created by Dutch engraver Cornelus van Dalen the younger (1638–1664) for the most ambitious atlas ever produced. Joan Blaue’s (1596–1673) Atlas Maior was produced between 1662 and 1665 and Arctica, the curious image metaphorically signalling the frozen north, features a lone polar bear swimming in the foreground with a walrus and three bears and wolves roaming in the background. It is an enigmatic and rather surreal image.

Shortly before Constantine Phipps’ bloodthirsty description made it to press, Thomas Pennant (1726–1798), the Welsh natural historian and writer, described the Polar or White bear in his Synopsis of Quadrupeds (1771). The Library’s later 1793 copy of this remarkable volume is the third edition, known as a History of Quadrupeds and it describes polar bears as admirable swimmers and agile divers that feed on fish and whale carcasses and “on human bodies, which they will greedily disinter: they seem to be very fond of human blood...and plunder the houses of the Greenlanders”.  His account echoes what seems to have been a common characterisation of polar bears as being bloodthirsty and “so fearless as to attack companies of armed men, and even to board small vessels.” The brutal Barents’ published images and his experiences obviously influenced Pennant because he relates in his account how three of Barents’ men became dangerously ill from eating the boiled liver of a captured bear. 

The image of the polar bear illustrating Pennant’s 1793 volume is engraved by the prolific British printmaker Peter Mazell (fl.1761–1802) and is based on the Library’s iconic image first drawn by John Webber (1751–1793), the very talented artist for Cook’s fateful third voyage. 

John Webber (1752–1793), White bear  1779, pencil, pen, ink and wash; 31.2 x 45.2 cm, Rex Nan Kivell Collection (Pictures), nla.pic-an2668084   

Curiously, an earlier image from 1766, also by Mazell, was used by Pennant in his first edition; it shows a wide-eyed and rather cowed bear which belies its bloodthirsty reputation. This is an image of the print from the British Museum's collection which came from the collection of Joseph Banks. 

The Library is very fortunate to hold the original drawing created by Webber in 1779 after the crew, now led by Charles Clerke (1743–1779), shot and captured two swimming bears, a mother and son. David Samwell (1751–1798), the ship’s surgeon on the Resolution recorded their capture in his journal mentioning their weight and that the mother 'had milk'. The crew ate the bears and their flesh, 'tho’ fishy was generally preferred to salt Meat' after having broken the scales trying to weigh them (between them they weighed 671 pounds or 305 kilograms). Pennant poignantly observed in his printed account that 'the affection between the parents and (their young) is so strong, that they would die rather than desert one another'.

In its Manuscripts collection the Library also holds Pennant’s notebook entitled Animals observed or collected by Joseph Banks esqr. & Doctor Solander in the voyage round the world … (MS 9138) in which he briefly describes the polar bear, though he has energetically crossed out his notes for some reason. It is a briefer listing than his discursive printed version which suggests he may have used the notebook for some time before printing his Quadrupeds book and later entering the observations from his friend Joseph Banks.  

Of course Captain Cook did not live to see Webber’s polar bear as he had perished and been dismembered, not by bears but by angry Hawaiians on his unfortunate and ill-timed return to that island. Luckily for us though he had engaged the eminently talented artist John Webber to document the momentous voyage and animals encountered. Webber was one of Library benefactor and collector Sir Rex Nan Kivell’s favourites (symbolically he listed him on the top of the list of artist’s names featured on his cleverly engineered bookplate), and owned many of his works in oil, watercolour and in print, including this important drawing which has not been exhibited before.

These two items are now displayed together in the Treasures Gallery until August this year. 

Visit this website for more information on polar bears today.

Fascinating! Thanks for writing this. I found it informative and interesting.