A new edition of a 19th century sea voyage opens a window into the era’s fascination with the Arctic

“After the Iceberg and the Painter: A Summer Trip to Labrador and Around Newfoundland”

By Louis Legrand Noble; Black Dome Press, 2022; 235 pages; $19.95.

For modern readers, “after the iceberg” may refer to our experience of climate change and the fact that the Arctic and glacial ice are shrinking. We may soon be at a time when icebergs are no longer found where they were in the past. In “After Icebergs with Painters,” though, it means going after icebergs, as in hunting. This book is a reprint of a long-out-of-print manuscript – a diary, really – from an 1859 trip by an artist and his companion, a writer, to witness and paint a giant iceberg floating along the northeast coast of North America.

A very helpful foreword by art historian William L. Coleman explains who the two participants were and the purpose of their expedition. the artist, Frederic Edwin Church, was an internationally famous American landscape painter; His monumental work, “The Icebergs,” is depicted on the cover of our book. The writer, Louis Legrand Noble, was a priest, poet and biographer. The two were smitten with the popular idea of ​​nature at the time as “superior” – beautiful and awe-inspiring but also threatening in its wildness. They were also fascinated by the Arctic exploration of our time, including the lost Franklin Expedition a decade earlier. In fact, although “The Icebergs” was completed and first exhibited in 1861, the Church was then painted on the mast of the wrecked ship in the foreground as a reminder of the tragic fate of Franklin and his crew – and the weakness of man in the face of strong Nature.

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The first map in the book shows the route taken by the two men, usually in a chartered schooner – from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Cape Breton Island, then out across the Atlantic to the East Coast of Newfoundland, to Labrador, then back. west coast of Newfoundland past the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This is all they call “English America,” and the people they meet along the way are Brits, Scots and Irish settlers, and Natives. (The latter is not much observed except as the parishioners of the priest who christianize them.) The route took the men among the icebergs and to various settlements for just over a month.

The search is for the most magnificent iceberg among the dozens sometimes seen at once. When a prime specimen is selected, the man goes on a whaleboat with a crew. Once they were in close but safe enough distance, the crew battled the wind and current to hold the boat in position while Church sketched and painted and Noble made his notes.

The many sketches and paintings included in these pages are almost entirely new to this edition and reflect Church’s realistic, near-scientific approach.

One might think that there are only so many words to describe an iceberg, but Noble goes on at length to describe, compare, and celebrate the various “ice-islands,” as sailors call them. A large one resembled first “a collection of Chinese buildings,” then “a Gothic cathedral, early style,” which was “soon transmuted into something like a Coliseum, the spacious interior now a delicate blue and then a greenish white.” The small bergs “resemble the ruins of a marble city”. An “enormous warship” with a “magnificent figure,” breaks into “several giant statues.” Another “bright like silver polished with dew”. If Noble’s prose is often ornate and overwrought with classical and biblical references, it is still “painting a picture” to rival the artist and his oil.

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For 1859, the Church and Noble were surprisingly accurate in their scientific understanding. They know that icebergs come from Greenland, after breaking out from below moving glaciers and have been driven west by winds and currents. Noble learned from speaking with “stupid” people in Labrador who knew most nothing about glaciers and believed icebergs were “just accumulations of ice, snow and frozen spray.”

From careful research, the two men also understood that larger masses of icebergs were under water and that individual bergs could be floating or grounded. They know that the water and the sun melt the ice to create their sculptural elements and gradually they become unbalanced, causing them to twist and turn and break. It is less clear why they understood the relationship between the density of ice and the color they observed.

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Always, they were a little nervous – less than the sailors who rowed them – about coming too close to the big iceberg. They heard the story along the way of the boat crushed and swamped and had one close to call themselves – when the upper surface of the berg broke off and plunged into the sea in a “big cataract of green fragments and snow,” leaving the berg rocking. The whaleboat “breasted swells high”.

Although the book’s focus rests firmly on the icebergs and the grand and wild nature they represent, a reader will also learn about the whales and the landscapes encountered and the lives of some who live along the coast. Noble includes descriptions of fishermen (“a russet, tangle-haired and shaggy-bearded set”), boats, nets and flakes – a platform made of poles and covered with branches and sheets of birchbark used for drying cod and salmon. He describes the sealing industry that involves clubbing baby seals, visiting a cod-liver oil factory and eating meal from fried capelin and cods’ tongue.

Today, iceberg tourism is popular along the east coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. According to a recent tourism fact sheet, of the 40,000 medium to large icebergs that drift from Greenland each year, 400-800 typically reach the Canadian coast. Scientists believe the current rapid melting of glaciers could mean more icebergs in the near future but fewer in the future. We have “After Icebergs with Painters” and other narratives of time against which to gauge the changes to come.


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