Friday, 17 May 2013

Shining a light on a new era

In my previous post I invited readers to suggest why I found fault with a scene portraying an episode on board one of Franklin's ships. My answers all concern lighting. Firstly, the oil lamp: If Franklin and Fitzjames can see each other at all it will only be dimly, their eyes being dazzled by the brightness of the lamp between them at face level. From the Art Director's point of view it makes for a great image but in real life it would be extremely annoying for those seated at the table. The next thing to mention is that we can see portholes in the far bulkhead. Erebus and Terror didn't have any portholes, instead they had Preston's Patent Illuminators in the deck. The Captain's cabin also had (double glazed) rectangular windows in the stern of the ship. Both the Captain's cabin and the wardroom also had a skylight as does the location this scene was shot, the officers' saloon on the Cutty Sark. This begs another question - if there is light coming in through the portholes, why isn't the cabin flooded with light from the skylight? If it's daylight then why do they need the lamp?

These are fairly trivial details of set dressing but there is one detail which is anachronistic for a ship fitted out in 1845 - the oil lamp. Except that it's not an oil lamp, it's a kerosene lamp (like this one). If you try looking for an antique oil lamp on eBay about 99.5% of the results returned will be kerosene lamps. Kerosene, also known as paraffin, is thin enough to be drawn up the wick by capilliary action from a reservoir a considerable distance below the burner. On the other hand, the whale oil and vegetable oils used for lighting in Franklin's day were more viscous so the reservoir has to be almost  level with the flame. The first commercial refinery for kerosene was opened in Bathgate, Scotland, by James 'Paraffin' Young in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, so it is not credible that Franklin's ships would be lit by kerosene lamps. The raw materials for Young's refinery were varieties of coal now regarded as oil shale.

Click for full-size image
The above sketch depicts the wardroom of the steam-tender Pioneer, by her commander (from 1851), Sherard Osborn. At first glance the hanging lamp is not greatly different from the one in the documentary. This type is known as a sinubra lamp (like this one). The oil is held at the level of the burner in an annular reservoir supporting the shade and designed to minimise the shadow it casts - hence the name from Latin meaning without shadow.

The mid Victorian period in which the Franklin saga occurred is particularly fascinating for the relentless cascade of technological advances which wrought profound changes in peoples lives in a few short years. Historians frequently use 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, as a convenient boundary marker between an earlier agrarian age and the later industrial epoch. The advent of fossil energy in liquid form being just one of many technological advances which fuelled the Victorian revolution.

As a footnote, in 1821 Franklin missed an opportunity to see an early experiment with street lighting using fossil fuel, as he was engaged on his Coppermine river expedition. The demonstration was superintended by the brother of the inventor, Sir Thomas Cochrane, who was, at the time, commanding the Chilean Navy in that country's war of independence.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Chiaroscuro on the Cutty Sark

This frame from Louise Osmond's superb ITN/C4/Nova documentary "The Search for the North West Passage" brings to mind an artistic technique beloved of renaissance masters such as Caravaggio. Chiaroscuro, or in its most developed form Tenebrism, enhances the drama of an image through extreme contrasts of light and darkness. The dramatised scenes in this documentary are a tour de force. In this scene, shot in the officers saloon of the Cutty Sark, Anthony Gardner makes a very convincing Sir John Franklin. I have however noticed three minor mistakes. If anyone would like to suggest what they are then please go ahead. I'll add my answers in a couple of days.