Over 170 years ago, Sir John Franklin was in command of two ships on his fourth Arctic expedition. He intended to chart the last un-navigated section of the fabled Northwest Passage. Instead, Franklin and his crew seemingly disappeared from the face of Earth – creating a mystery that has fueled nearly two centuries of intrigue.

But even before Franklin’s fateful final voyage, the notion of a near-mythical far north gripped the collective consciousness of nineteenth century continental Europe and its colonialist outposts.

Between 1818 and 1876 the expansion of the British Empire into areas such as the Canadian Arctic coincided with the Romantic art movement and produced some of the most sublime images of the nineteenth century.

Under orders from the British Admiralty, the Royal Navy mounted numerous expeditions to the Canadian Arctic with orders to find and map a sea passage through the Archipelago, record scientific observations and engage with the Indigenous peoples of the region.

Original artworks, made by those who visited and those who imagined the Arctic, provided the raw material for printmakers and publishers to produce and disseminate images of Arctic landscapes, events and people. These compelling images appealed to Europeans and Americans alike as the images detailed an unknown and extreme place, one which the public found provocative and mysterious.

Many of the artworks included in the exhibition were by amateur artists who were also expedition members, assigned the task of recording their journeys. Their drawings and watercolours were often interpreted by printmakers and then published in books, portfolios and periodicals. These artworks illustrate a unique conflation of reportage and Romanticism, and were used to celebrate masculine ideals and define the English national identity in an increasingly global context.

The Arctic: Real and Imagined Views from the Nineteenth Century casts a contemporary lens upon these artworks. Inuit cultural consultants, Sophia Lebessis and James Kuptana provide an Inuit perspective on the content and themes that are addressed in the exhibition.

The Indigenous and European artifacts included in the exhibition (including artifacts related to the ill-fated 1845 Franklin expedition) provide a sense of reality to the world depicted in these nineteenth century artworks, a world in which the real was often indistinguishable from the imagined. These artifacts contrast the cultural and technological differences between Arctic inhabitants and Arctic visitors. The ingenuity and knowledge the Inuit possess allows them to thrive in a land often seen as extreme to outsiders and would have proved invaluable to the Europeans had they fully embraced it at the time.

For generations, the proliferation of nineteenth century Arctic iconography and stereotypes perpetuated the idea of the Arctic as a place of frigid desolation rather than one of vital beauty. Viewed now, through a contemporary lens, much of this historic imagery reveals the limits of the British Empire in the face of a daunting Arctic landscape and illustrates the failure of the colonial worldview when profound adaptation is necessary for success and survival.