The 'Diana' and 'Chase' in the Arctic - James H. Wheldon (c.1857)
oil on canvas, 65.5 x 90 cm
KINCM:2007.1323 Hull Maritime Museum

Wheldon’s Diana and Chase in the Arctic depicts Hull’s most famous whaler, the Diana centre stage in a port profile view, and the Chase sailing into the picture, in a daringly foreshortened lost bow/starboard view. The Chase was built in Medford, Massachusetts, and was first registered at Hull in 1858, before being lost in the fishery in 1860. Again drawing direct inspiration from earlier whaling prints, Wheldon depicts a variety of Arctic fauna for the taking, including the now familiar narwhals, valued for their unicorn-lke horns, swimming into the canvas bottom right; walruses, valued for their blubber, bobbing the water, centre right, and about to be shot top right; and seals being clubbed on the right. In addition, a number of whales are being hunted in the waters surrounding the ships. Two polar bears on a repouissoir ice floe, meanwhile, adopt the positions of many spectators within eighteenth-century landscape paintings, to which the canvas is also indebted. Wheldon’s violent canvas registers the shift, in the Arctic in this period, from whaling to sealing and walrus hunting, as the principle source of blubber. As a result, it may represent the first of two annual voyages north by Hull whalers, the first and earlier voyage predominantly in search of seals. Whilst full of violence, the picture gives little sense of the scale of the carnage, with individual whale ships often killing up to two thousand seals a day, and with reports of seals clubbed so carelessly and skinned so quickly that they remained alive on the ice, without their skins until they froze to death. Wheldon’s foreground narhwales and walruses are also newly sentimentalised, perhaps responding to the increasingly fashionable work of royal favourite, Edwin Landseer, although Wheldon’s polar bears are about as far as possible from the protagonists in Landseer’s later, bleak Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864).

Figure 1

Fig. 1: Man Proposes, God Disposes

1857, the year in which the canvas was probably painted, represented a key year when it came to the question of animal fats destined to become lubricants. Rebellion across the Indian subcontinent that year were partly prompted by rumours that the native sepoys would be forced to lubricate their guns with cow and pig fat; cows being sacred to the Hindu soldiers, and pigs deemed unclean by Muslim sepoys.

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Credit: Images are courtesy of the Hull Maritime Museum