Tuesday, October 30, 2012

At Home in a Frozen World

After the glimpse of exploration at the South Pole, conducted by Robert Falcon Scott in this post, here's another sighting of cold regions, bringing us to the North Pole with Fridtjof Nansen.
Author, explorer and scientist, Fridtjof Nansen

Another two-volume set of books generously donated to the Museum, Nansen’s journals were published in 1897, just a year after the completion of a journey with 12 crew members aboard the FRAM, a ship built especially to resist the crush of ice floes and icebergs. Volumes 1 and 2 are entitled: “Farthest North The Voyage and Exploration of the ‘Fram’ 1893-1896 and the Fifteen Months’ Sledge Expedition”.

The set of books donated are full of illustrations, and many are photographic. However, Nansen’s own illustrations and his colored drawings appear as well. The image above is a drawing of a sledging expedition. His talent for rendering the cold landscape might have grown from earlier biological studies (see article in Wikipedia relating the man and his life).

sledging expedition: is similar to sleighing... and refers to travel, rather than recreation, on a conveyance described in the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, 1996, as "1. a carriage mounted on runners instead of wheels and used for traveling over snow or ice, a sleigh." The Dictionary says that the word may have originated in the coastal areas of Northern Europe, specifically the Netherlands and Germany.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Heroic Age of Antartica

Did you know that… almost one hundred years ago…

… the discoveries made for the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration were kept in a journal by the leader of the expedition, Captain Robert Fallon Scott, along with the scientific journals by E.A. Wilson, both of whom died of the conditions and exposure in 1912?

"The ramparts of Mount Erebus", a photograph, faces the chapter "The Ascent of Erebus, December 1912". Mount Erebus is a volcano on Ross Island in Antarctica.

This week the Library received a donation of two books about the earth’s poles, north and south, and the people involved in expeditions in the early years of the 1900s. The first, Scott’s Last Expedition in Two Volumes, gives the journals of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, and the reports of E.A. Wilson, a scientist while at work on the ice of Antarctica.

"E.W. Nelson with the Nansen_Petersen Insulated Water Bottle", a photograph, faces the chapter, "Marine Biology--Winter Quarters, 1911-1913".

Before reading the volumes, which are some 500 and 600 pages long, you could visit the Google Project site to get an idea of what life might have been like for the expeditions. The site shows two places in Antarctica, where two small museums are dedicated to exploration of the vast iced continent. Shackleton’s Hut and Scott’s Hut are the two known remaining structures. They are 100-year-old, pre-fabricated wooden buildings in the process of being restored as monuments to the explorers. Pictures show the interiors of the wood frame structures. You can see 360 degrees around the hut which is all but submerged in snow drifts.

The site was put together by the Google Cultural Institute, Getty Images and World Monuments Fund.

For better pictures and close-up detail for those interested in defining exactly what items were kept on the shelves of the hut, see the BBC’s site:

Friday, October 12, 2012

Transmitting Our Story, Print by Print

Season’s greetings often carried their art. People recognized their tremendous contribution to American culture. They transmitted images of everyday life before electronic communication, even railroads. They were 19th century businessmen with a vision: they were Currier & Ives, printmakers.

Currier & Ives, Printmakers to the American People, by Harry T. Peters. Doubleday Doran and Company, Inc., 1942

Harry Peters’s details about the firm and its artists provided the expected historical facts, but also imparted a sentimental tone, published as it was in the early 1940s. Peters capitalized on the then surge of interest in a long-ago America when the country was a great deal less complicated and its people far more innocent than they had become by the middle of the next century.

In the introductory chapter, Peters writes: “In 1834, when Nathaniel Currier formed his first partnership, Andrew Jackson was President, the South was a slaveholding oligarchy, Texas still belonged to Mexico, the Great West was a wilderness, and the industrial revolution had yet to penetrate what was still an agricultural nation. In 1888, when Currier died, he left a country spanned from coast to coast by railroads…"

Another book on the prints of Currier & Ives features maritime subjects exclusively. It’s written by Felix Riesenberg who is these days viewed as a maritime historian with literary flair. The writer himself contributes much to maritime lore as each entry in the catalog of images is rich with detail about the ships.

Illustration of The MISSISSIPPI, a paddle-wheel steamboat: “The MISSISSIPPI in a typhoon”, as seen in Currier & Ives Prints No. 4 by Felix Riesenberg London: The Studio Publications Limited and New York: The Studio Publications, Inc., 1933.

The dots and splotches on this image represent foxing, a term that refers to substances in the printing ink that break down over time and migrate as rust-colored discoloration. Since this book is almost 80 years old, the deterioration is typical for early to mid-twentieth century paper, and also for much older books. The surface of the prints, all on coated stock and pasted onto each page, are not subject to decay because coated paper has been treated to have a hard surface. In the case of this book, text is printed on pages that back the illustrations, thus the splotching “walks” all over the text pages as well as the illustrations.

First of the prints offered in this slim volume, this one sets precedent for scenes of action or destruction on rivers and seas. In this scene, the steam frigate MISSISSIPPI barely acknowledges gigantic waves though they enfold the vessel in their fury, and plows through on a mission to a port in Japan. According to the author, the ship is illustrated with remarkable accuracy regarding fittings and structures. Storms notwithstanding, the ship circumnavigated the globe two times, having served as flagship for Commodore Matthew C. Perry for his travel to Japan, in the Mexican War; later the frigate served in the Civil War, and gallantly sank under fire in the river which was her namesake.

These illustrations informed the public at a time when photography had been invented but generally was not available for action shots such as this heady image relates. As the following 24 images attest, early steam-propelled vessels encountered major challenges, such as fire. Illustrations portrayed the moment of conflagration as realistically as could be imagined. And fire, however ruinous in the end, did not obliterate the view of a ship as it was portrayed faithfully, historically correct in every detail. Sort of like a well-directed movie, the life of a vessel is concatenated to one instance, one portrait, with all of its back-story that can be read again and again while appreciating in value.

Image of print, "The Fireman", from Currier & Ives, Printmakers to the American People.

See another commentary, Behind the Scenes the Artists who worked for Currier & Ives.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Illustrating a War

The Illustrated History of the Russo-Japanese War by J.N. Westwood. Published by Sidgwick & Jackson, London. 126 pages, illustrated.

The Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905

Between 1904 and 1905, Japan and Russia fought for the ownership of a port on the Pacific that would represent strategic authority in the region. By the time Japan had established their defeat of Russian forces, the supporting web and entanglement of European and Asian powers had engendered a complex political situation. It was the first modern war to bring powers from opposite sides of the world to the battlefield.

From the end of this war and into the future, Japan became a world player, a political rival to the already known big powers. Every image of the year-long war in “The Illustrated History of the Russo-Japanese War” by J.N. Westwood shows personal expression in the face of terrible battles, or sometimes at rest, between the horrors of killing for might. The photographic record includes images shot close to the action, representing the soldiers’ and sailors’ faces, dress, and activity in a super-realistic manner. Alongside are numerous artists’ impressions in the form of paintings, creating an interesting mix of photographs, original and from newspapers, etc., and illustrations. Cartoons were created to deconstruct events and present them to audiences in Europe and the U.S. Of course, Japan had no shortage of opinion on this war, as you can see in the cartoon below.

The story of the war is told in short chapters, “The Causes”, “The Adversaries”, “The First Blows”, etc. and gives only significant details. An interesting book for its format and illustrations, it was published in 1973, almost 70 years after the war and its eventual peace agreement. There are no acknowledgements, index or notes.

See this and other accessioned books on Japanese warships in the Los Angeles Maritime Museum Library online at LibraryThing.com.