Edward Inglefield: First Camera to the Arctic

Edward A. Inglefield (1820-1894)
British navy, Arctic explorer, photographer, artist.

When Captain Inglefield set sail for the Arctic in summer 1854, The London Times reported that he took with him ‘a most complete series of the articles used by “photographists” for depicting nature as seen in the Polar regions’. Inglefield had seen the new technique of wet glass-plate photography at the 1851 Great Exhibition. The Archer’s Manual of the Collodion Photographic Process, published in 1852, explained the process.

The advent of photography in 1841 provided significant opportunities to record places and events more accurately. However, the hostile environment of the Arctic presented a unique challenge.

The earliest negatives of the Arctic were calotypes, taken in 1852 by William Domville of the Resolute, while searching for Franklin. In 1851 the ‘wet-plate’ process was invented. This was the one used by Inglefield on his Arctic voyage of 1854. A sheet of glass was hand-coated with a thin film of collodion (guncotton dissolved in ether). It had to be sensitized and exposed while wet, and developed immediately, requiring all the equipment and chemicals on site in freezing weather.

Inglefield set out from the UK on his search in July 1852, commanding Lady Franklin's private steamer Isabel, seven years after Franklin left on his ill-fated search for the fabled Northwest Passage. Once Inglefield reached the Arctic, a search and survey of Greenland's west coast was made. Ellesmere Island was re-sighted. Smith Sound was penetrated further than any known records. Jones Sound was also searched; and a landing was made at Beechey Island. No sign of Franklin's expedition was found. Finally, before the onset of winter forced Inglefield to turn homewards, the expedition searched and charted much of Baffin Island.

Inglefield made two further voyages to the Arctic, to supply the search for the Franklin expedition overseen by Sir Edward Belcher. Arriving back in the Arctic the following year, 1854, Inglefield found Belcher's ships abandoned, save one to which the crews had retreated. Most of these men returned with Inglefield to the UK.

Soon after his return from the Arctic, Inglefield was sent to join the Crimean War in the Black Sea.. In 1869 he was made a Rear Admiral and three years later was appointed Superintendent of the Royal Naval dockyard in Malta. Inglefield retired in 1885. Thereafter he devoted much of his time to painting his watercolors of Arctic landscapes. He died, aged seventy-four. Inglefield’s Arctic photographs convey, with astonishing clarity, the personalities of a diverse mixture of people caught on camera more than 150 years ago.