Posted on 13/05/2013
Edwin Landseer, Man Proposes, God Disposes, 1864
Oil on canvas, accession number: THC0032
With exams in full swing the painting ‘Man proposes, God disposes’ by Edwin Landseer is taking its annual break from being viewed and is hiding behind a Union Jack flag. No one quite knows when the tradition of covering the picture first began but according to an article published in 1984 it seems to have started in the 1970s when a rumour was spread that a student who looked directly at the painting during an exam, went mad and committed suicide. Quite a sensational story! Intrigued and slightly alarmed when I first arrived in November I asked archivist Annabel Gill if there were any records of a death in the Picture Gallery. Thankfully, she has not found any and for now I am reassured that it is a just a university legend.
But why would this particular painting have become the basis of such a grotesque rumour? To me the answer must be entwined with the subject depicted in the picture. The painting of two polar bears savagely attacking human remains, depicts an imagined episode in the mysterious and grisly tale of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 failed expedition to find the North-West passage. Finding this pass was extremely important to British merchants and sailors in the 19th century as it would link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans thus significantly cutting the length of voyages. At the start it all looked so promising: Franklin was an experienced explorer of the icy realms around the artic, he set off with two Royal Navy ships, 129 men and supplies for 3 years. The expedition left to much excitement on 19 May 1845. After one sighting of the ships off Greenland in July that year they vanished. To this day no-one knows what went wrong and the Canadians are still looking for the two ships. By 1848 when no word had been heard of their safe arrival, numerous search and rescue missions were sent out. Few found anything concrete until in 1854 John Rae headed a mission. He spoke to the local Inuit community who had met some of the remaining crew after they had abandoned their ships, and who found the bodies of these men the following year. They had also found objects from the expedition including Franklin’s telescope, seen in the painting. Most gruesome, however, was their discovery of bones belonging to members of the crew which they believed showed the marks of cannibalism.
On returning to England Rae’s grisly report caused outcry. For the Victorians, who believed utterly in their superiority as the most advanced and civilized nation in the world, no civilized, Christian man would stoop to such barbarian levels. Even Charles Dickens waded into the debate. Rae’s observations were refuted and his reliance on local Inuit knowledge was criticized. Many more missions to find the truth behind the failed expedition have been undertaken and small parts of the puzzle have been pieced together. Modern forensic analysis has shown that Rae was correct and the crew did have to turn to cannabalism to survive. Even the discovery in the 1980s of a few bodies perfectly preserved in the ice has failed to solve the mystery.
With such a macabre history is remarkable that Thomas Holloway bought ‘Man Proposes, God Disposes’ for his Women’s College. It is certainly not the sweet, sentimental type of picture that many of his contemporaries would have deemed suitable for young women. However, he knew that he was creating a collection for enquiring minds who would want to investigate and discuss the issues highlighted by the painting such as man versus nature and the notion of a civilized society. Next academic year I will be giving a talk on the painting and going into both the Victorian and the contemporary fascination with the macabre history of the Franklin expedition. Come along if you dare!
Laura MacCulloch, College Curator