Portrait of an Explorer Artist: George Back
Sir George Back (1796–1878) was a British Royal Navy officer renowned for his role in exploring the Arctic coastline of North America. He was also considered one of the most original and interesting of the British topographical artists to work in Canada. He twice accompanied the British explorer John Franklin to Canada’s Northwest Territories in 1819–22 and 1825–27, and later conducted two expeditions of his own to the same region in 1833–35 and 1836–37.
Back joined the Navy as a first-class volunteer in 1808, at the young age of thirteen. He was captured by the French while serving in Spain the following year and was imprisoned for five years at Verdun. It was during this stint as a prisoner of war that Back devoted himself to the study of French, mathematics and, most significantly, drawing. He quickly distinguished himself as a talented artist, and it was this qualification that procured him an appointment on Franklin’s first overland expedition. Back fastidiously chronicled their journeys, taking every opportunity to make pencil sketches of memorable views and events. He later used these quick drawings, many with detailed colour notations, to create watercolours that Franklin reproduced in his published narratives.
Franklin often refers to Back’s sketching activity in his accounts: “Lieutenant Back had the superintendence of the men; and the accurate drawings which he finished during the winter, from sketches taken on the voyage, afford ample proof of his diligence and skill.” Back’s sketches and watercolours were considered vitally important both to provide a visual record of the Arctic expeditions and to arouse public interest and support at home for future exploration.
In an over half-length lithographic portrait set against a blank background, recently acquired by the National Gallery of Canada, Back is shown in his role as artist – a rare if not singular occurrence. Other portraits of the explorer conspicuously omit this important aspect of his vocation. Dressed in his naval uniform with epaulettes, his hair perfectly coiffed and his features handsome and refined, Back stands at a slight angle to the picture plane and surveys the viewer as he is captured in the act of drawing. In his hands is one of the sketchbooks he used to document his expeditions – a number of which can be found in the collection of Library and Archives Canada – and a porte-fusain, a device commonly used in the 19th century to hold sticks of charcoal.
Portrait of George Back Sketching exudes youthful confidence, if not also a modicum of conceit, a characteristic commonly ascribed to Back. According to historian Leslie H. Neatby, “Back had neither the seriousness of disposition nor the intensity of purpose which are indispensable to the great captain. His virtues were of a different order. No other man has viewed the scenery of the Canadian North with so appreciative an eye, nor has been able to give such full and vigorous expression to that appreciation.”
The lithograph was designed after a portrait by the English artist George Robert Lewis (1782–1871), which was painted around the time when Back was preparing for his second overland expedition with Franklin (the whereabouts of this work is currently unknown). Lewis, a versatile and well-reputed landscape and portrait painter, who trained with the likes of Swiss artist Henry Fuseli at the Royal Academy Schools, also painted portraits of Back’s fellow Arctic explorers Robert Hood and Franklin.
The print is most likely by the hand of Louis Haghe (1806–85) of the publishing firm Day & Haghe, a successful printing company in London. Haghe was a lithographer and watercolourist who was appointed “draughtsman to his Majesty [King William IV]” and continued with the ascension of Queen Victoria (the print in question bears an inscription that reads “Day & Haghe Lithrg to the Queen”). He adapted many portraits to print form, often lending them an unfinished air. In Portrait of George Back Sketching, for example, Back’s likeness grows sketchier as you progress down the sheet, with the bottom half of his body hardly visible save for a rough outline. In this way, Haghe seemed to use the lithography medium to mimic drawing.
There are ten watercolours by George Back in the Gallery's collection. These works, the majority dating from his second expedition with Franklin, serve as invaluable records of early northern history and represent an outstanding achievement of British topographical art in Canada, capturing its landscape and people with great accuracy and finesse. This portrait of the artist grants a glimpse of the man behind that art. More importantly, it is a portrait of the artist as an artist, thereby highlighting his important function on the expeditionary team and his legacy as one of the first European artists to capture the Canadian Arctic.
For details of works by George Back in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, see the collection online. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.