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

“To Icebergs with a Painter: A Summer Journey to Labrador and Around Newfoundland”

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

For modern readers, “to icebergs” may suggest our experience with climate change and the fact that Arctic and glacial ice is shrinking. We may soon be in a time when icebergs are no longer found where they were in the past. However, in “After Icebergs with a Painter” the meaning is about going after icebergs, like on a hunt. The book is a reprint of a long-out-of-print manuscript – a diary, in fact – of an 1859 journey by an artist and his companion, a writer, to witness and record giant icebergs painter drifting along North America’s northeastern coast.

A very helpful foreword by art historian William L. Coleman explains who the two participants were and their expedition goals. The artist, Frederic Edwin Church, was an internationally known American landscape painter; his monumental masterpiece, “The Icebergs,” is depicted on the book’s cover. The author, Louis Legrand Noble, was a clergyman, poet and biographer. The two were smitten with the idea popularized at the time of nature as “sublime”—beautiful and awe-inspiring, but also menacing in its wildness. They were also fascinated by the era’s Arctic explorations, including the lost Franklin expedition of a decade earlier. In fact, although “The Icebergs” was completed and first exhibited in 1861, Church later painted in a broken ship’s mast in the foreground as a reminder of the tragic fate of Franklin and his crew – and of the weakness of the man in the face of powerful Nature.

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A map early in the book shows the route the two men took, mostly on a chartered schooner – from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Cape Breton Island, then across the Atlantic to the East Coast of Newfoundland, up to Labrador , then back down the west coast of Newfoundland past the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It was all they called “British America,” and the people they met along the way were settler Brits, Scots, and Irish, along with native people. (These last were not seen much, except as parishioners of clergy who baptized them.) The route took the men between icebergs and to various settlements for just over a month.

The search was for the most magnificent icebergs among the dozens that were sometimes visible at once. When an excellent specimen was selected, the men set out in a whaleboat rowed by a crew. Once within a close but reasonably safe distance, the crew battled wind and currents to hold the boat in position while Church sketched and painted and Noble took his notes.

The many sketches and paintings included in the pages are almost all new to this edition and showcase Church’s realistic, almost scientific approach.

A person might think that there are only so many words to describe icebergs, but Noble goes on at length to describe, compare and celebrate the various “islands of ice”, as the sailors called them. A single large one first looks like “a group of Chinese buildings,” then “a Gothic cathedral, early style,” which “soon morphed into something like the Colosseum, its vast interior now a delicate blue and then a greenish white.” Smaller mountains “looked like the ruins of a marble city”. A “gigantic warship” with “a majestic figure,” broke into “some gigantic sculpture”. Another “shines like polished silver dripping with dew”. If Noble’s prose is often embellished and overloaded with classical and biblical references, it still paints “a picture” to rival the artist with his oils.

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For 1859, Church and Noble were surprisingly accurate in their scientific understandings. They knew that the icebergs came from Greenland, having broken off the bottom of moving glaciers and been driven westward by wind and currents. Noble learned by talking to “ignorant” people in Labrador that most knew nothing of glaciers and believed that icebergs were “mere accumulations of loose ice, snow and frozen spray”.

From their careful study, the two men also understood that the much larger mass of icebergs lies underwater and that individual mountains can either float or be grounded. They knew that water and sun melted the ice to create their sculptural elements and gradually unbalanced them, causing them to twist and roll and break apart. It is less clear whether they understand the relationships between ice density and the colors they observed.

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They were always a little nervous – less so than the sailors who rowed them – about getting too close to large icebergs. They heard stories along the way of boats being crushed and engulfed and had one close call themselves – when the top of a mountain broke off and plunged to the sea in a “great cataract of green and snow fragments”. , which makes the mountain rock. The whaling boat was “harassed by the high swells”.

Although the book’s focus rests firmly on the icebergs and the grand and wild nature they symbolized, a reader will also learn about whales and landscapes encountered and the lives of some who lived along the coast. Noble includes descriptions of fishermen (“a reddish-brown, matted and rough beard”), boats, nets and flakes – the platforms built of poles and covered with branches and sheets of birch bark used to dry cod and salmon. He describes the sealing industry which involved clubbing baby seals, visiting a cod liver oil factory and eating a meal of fried capelin and cod tongues.

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 launch from Greenland each year, 400-800 typically reach Canadian shores. Scientists believe that today’s rapid glacier melt may mean more icebergs in the near term, but less in the future. We have “After Icebergs with a Painter” and other narratives of the times against which we can measure the change that is coming.



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