- Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture, 1818-1875
Russell A. Potter's Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture, 1818-1875 contributes to the story of how images travelled through time and space in the nineteenth century and, in the process, brings together two areas that have recently commanded considerable attention in Victorian studies: the polar north and media history. In the last fifteen years, a steady stream of historical and literary explorations of the Arctic's cultural significance has demonstrated important links between nineteenth-century print culture and new media, as well as politics and geography of empire. This growing body of work has helped us begin to grasp the impact of the Arctic on the Victorian imagination, the [End Page 138] scale of which is comparable, in Potter's estimation, to the twentieth-century captivation with space exploration and the race to the moon.
Potter makes two main claims: first, that geographical nationalism underwrote the resurgence of British political and cultural fascination with the Arctic region in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars; and, second, that this resurgence coincided with and depended upon a host of emergent visual technologies. These large claims have been asserted before. This study's real contribution lies in its detailed research on the history of the nineteenth-century new medium of the panorama and its crucial function as a mechanism for disseminating what has been known, particularly since Glenn Gould's seminal documentary of 1967, as "the idea of North." Not only did the panorama bring the sublimity of the Arctic directly to mass audiences but it also served as a source for re-mediation by other media. In outlining how panoramic spectacle moved Victorian culture, Potter provides a map of the many ways in which Arctic images travelled from the explorer ship to the London panorama stage and then back out again. In the re-mediating process, such icy visions were translated into a variety of formats and moved through vast media networks across Britain, Europe, and the Atlantic, even going as far as Australia, travelling to far corners of the world, much as the explorers who inspired or, in some cases, created its images journeyed to the far reaches of the North Pole.
Potter begins his exploration of Arctic visuality with a juxtaposition of two northern expeditions of 1818 with Henry Barker's influential large-scale panorama in Leicester Square of 1819 to 1820, events that occurred at the dawning of post-Napoleonic imperialism as it intersected the British national quest for "new theaters of public heroism" (38). As he recounts the journeys of various explorers, from David Buchan, John Ross, and William Parry to the fated John Franklin and those who searched after him, Potter offers a parallel examination of the panorama that helps underscore the extent to which the Arctic functioned as a world stage, for the explorers as well as their eager audiences, for a self-consciously dramatized and often patriotic performance of heroic deeds. Given its ability to "fool the eye, but to engage the senses almost physically, with the same power as the actual place depicted" (43), the panorama becomes, in this study, the "quintessential medium" (6) for engaging mass audiences in a realism "simply too realistic" to be considered high art (43) and, yet indeed, "the epitome of public art" (43).
While Arctic Spectacles might have provided more of this kind of analytical insight on ways the panorama may have troubled the visual truths it seemed to affirm, Potter nevertheless offers a fresh perspective on the nineteenth-century cultural significance of Arctic exploration, especially the mystery of the Franklin expedition (1845), by reconstructing relatively familiar historical events through new media history. The Franklin disappearance and its aftermath inevitably must weigh upon any consideration of nineteenth-century Arctic exploration and its significance to the Victorian imagination, but Potter turns this well-trodden historical episode into an opportunity to examine [End Page 139] "the confluence of multiple media...