Haunting image of 19th-century Irish explorer who disappeared on Arctic voyage up for sale

The ships lost in the expedition were found only relatively recently, in 2014 and 2016

A set of photographs, believed to be lost and unseen for 178 years, will be offered for sale at Sotheby’s Travel, Atlases, Maps and Photographs auction, on September 21st in London.

The images were taken Richard Beard studio, of Regent Street in London, on May 15-17th, 1845, aboard the HMS Erebus, just three days before the ship set sail, never to return.

These images are estimated to achieve £150,000-£200,000 (€175,360-€233,812) and described as “one of the most significant artefacts for the history of photograph and polar exploration rediscovered in recent times” by the auction house. They were produced when photography was in its infancy and are the last taken of the 14 members of the expedition. The team was sent by the British to explore 500km of Arctic coastline to complete the charting of the Northwest Passage, a vital sea route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

“These haunting daguerreotypes are among the most important examples of 19th-century photography to ever appear at auction,” says Emily Bierman, global head of Sotheby’s photographs department. Daguerreotypes were the first commercially successful photographic processes in the history of photography, but it is the fate of the men in these pictures that really makes them interesting.


Two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror – an aptly named ship considering its crew ended up stuck in Arctic ice for almost two years – under the command of Sir John Franklin; and Irish explorer and second in command Capt Francis Crozier, set sail on May 19th, 1845. They had been supplied with three years of preserved foods and a dog named Neptune, but after two years, with no word of the 134 men, Franklin’s wife urged the admiralty to send a search party. Despite having lots of food, many perished from lead poisoning from tinned food, not to mention disease from sharing their living quarters with rats, while polar winds cut like shards of glass outside their vessel, which was stuck in the ice.

Despite 26 search-and-rescue operations conducted over the next 30 years, the two boats were only recently discovered: in 2014 HMS Erebus was found by Parks Canada, followed by HMS Terror in 2016, marking two of the most important archaeological finds in recent history. Much of what was discovered is now in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

Crozier, who was born in Banbridge, Co Down, was the 11th of 13 children, and is described as a “highly regarded researcher and an underappreciated explorer,” according to Epic, the Irish Emigration Museum. After Franklin died in 1847, he took command, but eventually decided to abandon ship, leading the emaciated men on to the ice, “optimistically dragging lifeboats on sledges behind them”, to set out on a 900-mile journey – that now has macabre tales of cannibalised bodies.

Epic suggests Crozier was far more capable than his fellow officers, as “one of the most experienced polar officers of his day”, and was overlooked due to his Irish heritage and deemed lower class.

Crozier’s fate was never known; some say he was the last to die, but according to some Inuit interviews, cited in the Encyclopaedia of the Arctic, an officer of his description was seen in the 1850s. This was further confirmed by tales from American expeditions, who spoke of one survivor, “so skilled at hunting that he shared his food with local Inuit people”.

Despite being overlooked, Crozier has numerous geographical features named after him in Australia, the Falkland Islands, Norway and a lunar crater on the moon’s near side forever bears his name, as does Cape Crozier – where the magical emperor penguins of Antarctica reside.

Contents of Kill Lodge

On September 14th and 16th, Sean Eacrett will conduct a sale of the contents of Kill Lodge, the former home of the late Mary Cunningham, who ran the Five Lamps pub in Naas for many years.

A stalwart of the charity sector and a keen collector, she is fondly remembered as giving solace to many in need. The sale has some fine Georgian furniture including a hunting table (€600-€1,000); an oil paint, Salmon Leap at Leixlip by William Sadler II, (an example of which is in the National Gallery, €800-€1,200); and a Georgian peat bucket circa 1780 (€2,00-€4,000). Among the 1,150 lots are eight, red, Barcelona style chairs, priced at €300-€500 each.

Three-century-old coffee pot

If you’re heading to Timeless Antiques Fair at the RDS next weekend, silver expert Jimmy Weldon will be showcasing a very fine George I side-handle chocolate/coffee pot. It dates from 1725 and was made in Dublin by Thomas Walker, and weighs 1,011 grammes. “The fine armorial is original and possibly the Davis family, and the marks are superb,” says Weldon of the piece, which is almost three centuries old, and which is for sale for €45,000.sothebys.com, epicchq.com, seaneacrettauctions.ie, timlessfair.ie

Elizabeth Birdthistle

Elizabeth Birdthistle

Elizabeth Birdthistle, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about property, fine arts, antiques and collectables