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This uniqueness of this portrait miniature, depicting an unknown man in Arctic clothing, has been the subject of debate among International scholars since it was acquired by the Philip Mould Gallery. There are few facts that can be gleaned from an examination of the portrait itself and the history and provenance have been lost. The portrait must be seen, to some extent, as an interpretation of both the clothing and the people (whether Indigenous or European visitors) of the Arctic region, by a non-Indigenous artist.

This fascinating portrait miniature has been painted using the technique of an artist trained in France or an artist with an awareness of French miniatures and their idiosyncratic stylistic qualities (including the opaque, grey background and stippled, transparent watercolour used on the face). The thin cut ivory likely dates the work to after 1800.

There is little doubt that the artist of this portrait miniature has struggled to depict the unfamiliar clothing and materials...

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This uniqueness of this portrait miniature, depicting an unknown man in Arctic clothing, has been the subject of debate among International scholars since it was acquired by the Philip Mould Gallery. There are few facts that can be gleaned from an examination of the portrait itself and the history and provenance have been lost. The portrait must be seen, to some extent, as an interpretation of both the clothing and the people (whether Indigenous or European visitors) of the Arctic region, by a non-Indigenous artist.

This fascinating portrait miniature has been painted using the technique of an artist trained in France or an artist with an awareness of French miniatures and their idiosyncratic stylistic qualities (including the opaque, grey background and stippled, transparent watercolour used on the face). The thin cut ivory likely dates the work to after 1800.

There is little doubt that the artist of this portrait miniature has struggled to depict the unfamiliar clothing and materials presented to them. No scholars working in this area today are certain of the material of the sitter’s parka, which did not match the brown and white smooth hair of the caribou skin usually made into this garment. The animal skin parka painted in this miniature shows long, white hairs. Alternative suggestions have included polar bear skin, seal skin (particularly that of a white, young seal), wolf, dog, moose hide, fox fur or even a domestic animal such as goat.

The issues of depicting unfamiliar materials can be seen in the illustration of an ‘Eskimo with a bow and arrow, Arctic’, which was included in John Barrow’s book A chronological history of voyages into the Arctic Regions, published 1818 by John Murray. Here the ‘Eskimo’ is shown wearing similar clothing to the present portrait, his head encased in a rounded bonnet made of skin from a long-haired animal, his coat, seamed and tied at the front and mittens all made from the same material. He holds a shaped bow and a single arrow. [1]

The French style of painting used in this miniature, and the palette invites the hypothesis of an artist trained in Europe (but not England) who had emigrated to Canada. This was a familiar route for many of Canada’s earliest portrait miniaturists, who were able to work there after the establishment of British North America in 1759.[2] Artworks from France had also been imported far earlier by 17th-century French colonists in New France, so even artists trained locally would have had access to European techniques. [3]

Although the complex composition (with the sitter’s gloved hands convincingly clutching his bow) suggests an artist with professional training, by the early 19th century, small pieces of prepared ivory were available to amateur artists. The most notable example of a miniature painting of an Indigenous person by an amateur artist is probably the portrait of Demasduit, also known by her European name ‘Mary March’. She was painted in 1819 by Lady Hamilton, wife of the Governor of Newfoundland. Captured in March 1819 (hence her adopted name), she lived in Twillingate, Newfoundland, under the care of Rev John Leigh but succumbed to tuberculosis within a year. Although the present portrait has no connection to Lady Hamilton, comparison does perhaps provide an insight into the ingrained partiality of a European artist attempting to capture the features of an Indigenous sitter. The same issue can be seen in the amateur drawings of midshipman Robert Hood (c.1797-1821), who drew ‘Augustus’ and ‘Junius’ the Esquimeaux Interpreters from Churchill employed by the North Land Expedition in 1821.[4] The two men depicted show similar facial features with the man shown in the present portrait, including fine, dark high arched brows and tentative facial hair in the form of a moustache. Without Hood’s detailed inscription they may have been mistaken as crew from the British-manned ship.

Aside from the sitter’s clothing, the bow and arrows are potential evidence that the sitter is an Indigenous person, most likely from an Arctic region. From the 17th century, non-Indigenous hunters were armed with guns. To hunt with a bow and arrows would have been part of a lifetime of learning skills essential to survival. With no agriculture possible, hunting was the core of the culture and along with harpoons, bows and arrows would have been the main tools. The bow, arrows and quiver depicted in this portrait correspond with the materials and shape of a typical bow set used by Inuit hunters.[5] The inclusion of a bow and arrows in this portrait therefore advocate an Indigenous rather than non-Indigenous hunter (or fur-trapper), who would have had access to a gun.

A second hypothesis is that the portrait depicts a non-Indigenous individual wearing Indigenous clothing.[6] Many explorers returned to Europe with ‘native’ artefacts and clothing, and artists were employed to record this cross-cultural moment. Hugh Cecil Lowther, 5th Earl of Lonsdale (1851-1944) certainly owned and was depicted in his ‘travelling dress’ for his travels in the Arctic North, which consisted of furs made by local peoples.[7] This miniature does, however, appear to predate mid-19th century interest in ethnographic collecting and an alternative theory may be that the sitter is a hunter wearing Indigenous-style clothing as a practical solution in an inhospitable climate.

What is certain about this portrait is that it would appear to be a unique depiction of a man dressed in Indigenous clothing, painted in the format of a portrait miniature. The traditional purpose of a portrait miniature was as an intimate, private and portable portrait. Precious in nature, the status of portrait miniatures would have been higher than the watercolour sketches on paper made of Indigenous people by artists such as Robert Hood. Additionally, there is evidence that naval officers, often trained in the Woolwich Academy by drawing masters, travelled with sketch books, watercolour paints and occasionally small, prepared ivories for painting miniatures.[8]

Although, as noted, miniatures were painted by amateur as well as professional artists, the level of skill in this miniature suggests some formal training in technique. This is evidenced in this portrait miniature by the clear understanding of anatomy, the complex and realistic composition and the varied painting effects on the ivory – from the thicker background gouache to the thinned paint on the sitter’s face allowing the ivory to act as a translucent skin colour.

This fascinating and exceptional portrait therefore delivers a remarkably rare image of a man in Indigenous clothing. Painted on an intimate scale, using techniques specific to the art of miniature painting, the purpose of his unconventional, and exceptionally interesting depiction for the time being remains unclear. However, it may best be understood as the male counterpart to Lady Hamilton’s 1819 portrait miniature of Demasduit. Like this portrait of the Beothuk woman, it would originally have been shown to a small circle of people, who may have marvelled at the weapons and clothing, so different to their own, required to survive in the one of the most challenging climates on earth.

[1] Image accessed 30 October 2020 via Getty Images https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/eskimo-with-a-bow-and-arrow-arctic-illustration-from-a-news-photo/931298196

[2] A Portrait Miniature Project at Library and Archives Canada, Journal of the Canadian Association of Conservation, Vol. 36, 2011, p. 16

[3] One Canadian artist who worked in a European or French style was William Bent Berczy (1791-1873), the son of William Berczy (1744-1813). Born in London to German-Swiss parent, extant portrait miniatures by both Berczy father and son show a similar palette to the current work with a distinctive grey background (albeit painted with a more transparent, stippled watercolour).

See examples by William Berczy and William Bent Berczy in the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec (1991.104.01 and 1991.103.01)

[4] This sketch is part of ‘Library and Archives Canada’, no. e011154367 (blog accessed 29 October 2020). Many of Hood’s sketches and water-colours have survived. They are mainly in private collections, and the greater part of them are still in the hands of his family. Six water-colours done during the Franklin expedition are held at the PAC and are reproduced in black and white in W. M. E. Cooke, W. H. Coverdale Collection of Canadiana: paintings, water-colours and drawings (Manoir Richelieu collection) (Ottawa, 1983).

[5] Caribou sinew or horns were shaped into a ‘reflex’ bow, which from the shape of the bow seen here forms a ‘C’ shape that opens away from the hunter This description was provided by the 19th century ethnographer John Murdoch, who wrote extensively on his findings. See for example J. Murdoch, A study of Eskimo Bows in the US National Museum in notes reproduced by the Smithsonian Institution, 1884 or his report in Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 51, September 1897.

[6] With thanks to Professor Michael F. Robinson (University of Hartford) for providing examples of this fashion, dating from the 18th and 19th century, alongside his other insightful comments.

[7] With thanks for the example provided by Dr Peter Loovers, project curator at the British Museum.

[8] For example, Sir George Back (1796–1878) was a British Royal Navy officer renowned for his role in exploring the Arctic coastline of North America but he was also considered one of the most original and interesting of the British topographical artists to work in Canada. He twice accompanied the British explorer John Franklin to Canada’s Northwest Territories in 1819–22 and 1825–27, and later conducted two expeditions of his own to the same region in 1833–35 and 1836–37. His work can be found in the National Gallery of Canada.

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500 Years of British Art