Diana, Hull - Unknown Artist (1867)
oil on canvas, 53 x 63 cm
KINCM:1954.44b, Hull Maritime Museum

The apparent disappearance of the Diana when she did not return from the Arctic in 1866, and her return the following year, deeply affected Hull’s artists. She is depicted here lurching perilously towards the horizon line, the diagonal angles of the masts representing a revolution in a genre characterised with remarkable consistency by a central ship painted parallel to the picture plane and horizon line. Also radical is the complete absence of the sea, and a view from across a sustained icescape, rather than merely the repoussoir suggestions of ice floes edging in at either side of a marine scene. Whilst the artist draws on and appropriately darkens the often harmonious grey-blue tonality of Binks, Ward and others in the Hull School, his understanding of the ice owes a debt to the Victorian interest in crystals, evidenced in the ship’s captain referring to the ice as a “crystal foundation” and icebergs as “hard and dangerous as so many rocks”. In spite of the ongoing anxiety regarding the Diana’s crew, which recalled events surrounding the tragic loss of Franklin’s crew a generation earlier, the crew in the image have successfully retrieved from the ship whaleboats and other possessions. A crew member seems to be skiing towards the tent in the foreground, which contained, in addition to some of the crew, a canary and linnet, pets from the ship. The artist has broken the realistic frame of the image by adding the words “Diana, Hull, 1867” to the bottom left hand corner, just as the ship’s crew wrote the ship’s name and home port on a snowdrift adjacent to a cairn, to mark their presence there. Following the publication of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in 1843, ice and snow had come to be definitely associated with seasonal festivities. The picture, like the ship’s doctor, Charles Edward Smith, seems to view the scene as a kind of anti-Christmas card; what Smith doctor called a “horribly mockery of the spirit of an English Christmas”. Indeed, the picture may attempt to capture the moment at which Smith “went onto the ice, taking a stool and sketch-board”, thinking that he “might attempt a sketch of the ship”. But, “in a few minutes”, his “gloved hands were numbed and deadened”, and his “feet frozen like lumps of ice”.

Credit: Images are courtesy of the Hull Maritime Museum