A new edition of a 19th-century sea voyage opens a window into the era’s fascination with the Arctic
“After the Icebergs with a Painter: A Summer Trip to Labrador and Around Newfoundland”
By Louis Legrand Noble; Black Dome Press, 2022; 235pages; $19.95.
For modern readers, “after the icebergs” may suggest our experience of climate change and the fact that arctic and glacial ice is shrinking. We may soon be at a time when icebergs no longer end up where they once were. In “After the Icebergs with a Painter“, however, the meaning is to chase the icebergs, as in a hunt. The book is a reprint of a long-out-of-print manuscript – a diary, in fact – of an 1859 trip by an artist and his companion, a writer, to observe and paint giant icebergs floating along the northern coast. -eastern North America.
A very helpful preface by art historian William L. Coleman explains who the two participants were and the goals of their expedition. The artist, Frederic Edwin Church, was an internationally renowned American landscape painter; his monumental masterpiece, “The Icebergs”, is depicted on the cover of the book. The writer, Louis Legrand Noble, was an ecclesiastic, poet and biographer. Both were struck by the popular idea at the time of nature as “sublime” – beautiful and awe-inspiring but also menacing in its wildness. They were also fascinated by the Arctic explorations of the time, including the lost Franklin Expedition of a decade earlier. In fact, although “The Icebergs” was completed and first exhibited in 1861, Church later painted in the mast of a broken ship in the foreground as a reminder of the tragic fate of Franklin and his crew – and of the weakness of man in the face of powerful nature.
A map at the start of the book shows the route the two men took, mostly on a rented schooner – from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Cape Breton Island, then across the Atlantic to to the east coast of Newfoundland, to Labrador, then down the west coast of Newfoundland beyond the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It was all they called “British America,” and the people they met along the way were British, Scottish, and Irish settlers, as well as natives. (The latter were not much observed except as parishioners of the clergy who Christianized them.) The road took the men among the icebergs and to various settlements for a little over a month.
The search was for the most magnificent icebergs among the dozens sometimes in view at once. When a choice specimen was chosen, the men set off in a crew-rowed whaleboat. Once within a close but reasonably safe distance, the crew fought wind and currents to hold the boat in position while Church sketched and painted and Noble took his notes.
The many sketches and paintings included in the pages are almost all new to this edition and reflect Church’s realistic and quasi-scientific approach.
A person might think there are only so many words to describe icebergs, but Noble goes on at length to describe, compare and celebrate the various “Islands of Ice”, as sailors called them. A single large one first resembles “a cluster of Chinese buildings”, then “a Gothic, old-style cathedral”, which “soon grew into something like the Colosseum, its vast interior now a delicate blue then greenish white”. The smaller icebergs “looked like the ruins of a marble city”. A “huge warship” with “a majestic figurehead”, burst into “a gigantic sculpture”. Another “shines like polished silver dripping with dew”. While Noble’s prose is often ornate and overloaded with classical and biblical references, she always “paints a picture” to rival that of the artist with her oils.
For 1859, Church and Noble were surprisingly accurate in their scientific understandings. They knew that the icebergs came from Greenland, having broken away from the bottom of moving glaciers and been pushed west by wind and currents. Noble learned from speaking with “ignorant” people in Labrador that most knew nothing about glaciers and believed that icebergs “were just accumulations of loose ice, snow, and frozen spray.”
From their careful study, the two men also understood that the much larger mass of icebergs was underwater and that individual icebergs could be floating or stranded. They knew that the water and the sun melted the ice to create their sculptural elements and gradually unbalanced them, causing them to spin, roll and break. It is less clear whether they understood the relationships between ice density and colors that they observed.
They were always a little nervous – less than the sailors bringing them back – about getting too close to large icebergs. They heard stories along the way of crashed and submerged boats and had a hard time themselves – when the top side of an iceberg broke off and plunged into the sea in a “huge cataract of fragments green and snowy”, leaving the iceberg to swing. The whaleboat “brought up against the high swells”.
Although the focus of the book rests firmly on icebergs and the awe-inspiring wilderness they symbolized, the reader will also learn from the whales and landscapes encountered and the lives of some who lived along the coast. Noble includes descriptions of fishermen (“a set of redheads, with matted hair and shaggy beards”), boats, nets and flakes – the platforms built of poles and covered with branches and leaves of bark of birch used to dry cod and salmon. He describes the sealing industry which involved clubbing baby seals, visiting a cod liver oil factory, and eating a meal of fried capelin and cod tongues.
Today, iceberg tourism is popular along the eastern shores of Newfoundland and Labrador. According to a recent tourism fact sheet, of the 40,000 medium to large sized icebergs leaving Greenland each year, 400 to 800 typically reach the Canadian coast. Scientists believe today’s rapid glacier melt could mean more icebergs in the near term, but fewer in the future. We have “After the Icebergs with a Painter” and other stories from the time to gauge the change to come.