Artist, explorer, photographer captures images of a frozen world

William Bradford’s “In the Lee of the Iceberg (1883) in the collection of the Malden Public Library.

By Jennifer McClain

This is this is another in the series on “Treasures at the Library.” Please note that direct photographs of artwork at the library is not permitted.

Picture of William Bradford, (1823-1892), painter and photographer, Source: The New England Magazine, vol 16, page 29, via Wikipedia.

Even as William Bradford  was stranded on an ice-locked ship. he kept drawing and photographing. The eerie and desolate view of frozen water everywhere was for him the epitome of magnificence. As one of Bradford’s companions, Alpheus Spring Packard, wrote in his journal: “From the mountains above us we watched, day after day, the ceaseless march of icebergs and cakes, large and small.”

Viewing In the Lee of the Iceberg (1883), a painting at the Malden Public Library by Bradford, you can imagine this very scene. The ship is placed just right of a massive mountain of snow and ice that dwarfs the ship before it. The water appears hard and cold with sheets of ice that seem to be moving as you look at them. To emphasize the grandness of the expanse, another tiny ship is placed just to the left of the iceberg.

Bradford (1823 – 1892) was a New England romanticist painter, photographer and explorer, who went on a number of Arctic expeditions and recorded what he saw. Dressed in a seal-skin coat, he ventured out to capture  these glorious frozen vistas. He knew the dangers but he was compelled to explore. As he later explained in one of his “Wonders of the Polar World” lecture series to  a packed audience at the Lowell Institute,  “I propose to give you some account of the regions which I so often have visited, to show you the sights and scenery about which the present cruises of the Polaris and other exploring ships have excited so much interest, to introduce you to the ice mountains and those solitudes, immense, unbroken, awful. The voyage was made on my 450-ton steamer Panther, strengthened to withstand the shock of ice floes that have shattered so many vessels. It may be of interest to know that among other devices to strengthen her, her bow was filled up solid, so that if she had been sawed in two twelve feet from the bow she would not have sunk.”

Not only were the expeditions physically difficult, but so too was creating the images. Many of the paintings Bradford made were from photographs not sketches. He used something called the wet process. Working with John Dunmore and George Critcherson, Bradford had to coat and develop the image before the plate dried; and add to that, he and his dark room were moving (being on a ship). This combined with the conditions  made the process  very difficult. Another noted disadvantage of this process is its sensitivity to only blue light which meant that warm colours appeared dark while cool colors were uniformly light.

Born a Quaker, Bradford may have had the “Inner Light” belief or that Christ is working directly in your soul. Bradford was known as “the Quaker painter.” You can imagine one of the Quaker testimonials as you look at In the Lee of the Iceberg (1883)  painting, which is beautiful and simple like the Quaker testimonial that one ought to live a simple life.

In his early  days, Bradford  tried for a while to run a wholesale clothing store but was unsuccessful. This may have been a fortunate turn of events for a young man who really wanted to be an artist, not a proprietor of a business. His failure, he said, was because “I spent too much time painting to succeed.'” Yet, he proved to be an astute business man. His lectures were held all over the United States and London and the price of admittance was $2.00 ($1.50 in advance) which in today’s prices is $35.29. The popularity of the first led to two more lectures. He made real to those in the audience the difficulty of his  trips and the people he met.

The undertaking of photographing, sketching, and the expedition itself to create these glorious paintings was clearly a hardship.  He explained in 1883 to reporter, his role as both photographer and artist: “The wild rugged shapes, indescribable and ever changing, baffle all description, and nothing can do them justice but the sun given the powers of the camera. And even that must fail in part, for until retouched by the hand the glorious phases of color remain unexpressed.”

“In the Lee of the Iceberg” was purchased by the library in 1968. All artworks held in the library collection exist through the fund created by the rubber-sole shoe tycoon, Elisha Slade Converse, and his wife, Mary. Both are the original benefactors of the library’s Converse Memorial Building, which was built in 1885, designed by the famed architect H. H. Richardson and registered as a National Historic Landmark.

Current William Bradford Exhibits:
Solely for the Purposes of Art: Images from William Bradford’s 1869 Arctic Expedition
January 22, 2018 – June 10, 2018
Hubbard Hall foyer, Peary Macmillan Artic Museum & Arctic Studies Center
Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine.
The Malden Public Library owns a varied collection of artwork, which is housed in three art galleries, in the Converse Memorial building. For more information, visit the library’s website
A performance at a Malden Reads Opening Celebration in the Ryder Gallery. The Bradford painting is in the center of the three paintings closest to the corner of the wall.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks Jennifer! I have also been to the Peary Macmillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin. I think Bradford might have some permanent paintings there, as well. It is a perfect match!

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