Martin Johnson HEADE  
United States of America 1819 � 1904-09-04  
Sunlight and shadow: the Newbury Marshes c.1871-75, oil on canvas National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. John Wilmerding Collection (Promised Gift). Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Isaac JENNER | Cape Chudleigh, Coast of Labrador

England 1836 – Australia 1902-03-01
Australia from 1883
Cape Chudleigh, Coast of Labrador 1893, reworked 1895
oil on canvas on composition board
76.5 (h) x 126.9 (w) cm
frame 102.5 (h) x 153.5 (w) x 10.0 (d) cm
Collection: Queensland Art Gallery, gift of the artist 1895
VIEW: Article |
Turner to Monet

A large, ambitious scene of arctic exploration, imagined fifty years after the event and half a world away, seems an unlikely Australian project. Jenner, a self-taught English immigrant painter, tried to establish a cultivated artistic climate in Queensland at the end of the nineteenth century. Such grand history paintings, employing all the stratagems of the Sublime, would make the artist’s reputation unassailable, he thought, as well as serving another purpose, that of elevating public taste.

His subject was Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition of 1845, to find the fabled Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The venture fascinated the public, writers, and the press for decades; the British government, prodded by Lady Franklin, sent thirty-two expeditions to find the vanished explorers, Swinburne wrote a long poem in 1860, and Jules Verne published two novels inspired by the topic in the 1870s. Reports of cannibalism among survivors kept the story alive and scandalous.

Jenner remembered arctic scenery and details from a journey taken in his youth. He sailed in the early 1850s, he said, on ‘a voyage to Lapland, Nova Zembla and Spitzbergen’.1At the age of eighteen in 1855, Jenner joined the Royal Navy for a decade, then retired to his birthplace, Brighton, to become an artist. Unhappy with his prospects as a marine and genre painter there, he emigrated with his large family to Brisbane in 1863. En route he witnessed the effects of Krakatoa’s eruption, another instance of Nature’s grand and sublime spectacles.

For his modern history painting Cape Chudleigh, Coast of Labrador, Jenner painted icebergs in Labrador, populated by hundreds of great auks – large, penguin-like birds, hunted to extinction in the 1840s. The whole is lit by a full moon under a cloudy sky. Apart from icy white and blue for freezing water, sea and sky, atmosphere and rocks are rendered in smoky brown and grey, with red reflected from the ship on fire behind an iceberg.2

The ghostly theatre of Franklin’s fatal voyage is accentuated by Jenner’s spectral depiction of translucent ice, a disappearing mountain and bizarre spectating birds, scattered like the ill-fated crew through the sea and absent land. Jenner’s invisible hero, Franklin, was linked closely to colonial Australia’s brief history: he accompanied Matthew Flinders on the Investigator’s initial circumnavigation of the continent in 1801–04, and served as Governor of Tasmania from 1836 to 1843.

Nonetheless, the artist’s extravagant vision of the voyage was profoundly unfashionable. The extremes of the Sublime, especially delight in terror and heightened emotions, had dissipated their effect by the end of the century, while unsuccessful English explorers no longer caught the imagination of poets and engravers. European aesthetic manners and themes were replaced in Australia by the local and immediate paintings of the Heidelberg school.3 Jenner was triply unfortunate, in that his subject and style were no longer appreciated, and any audience was sparse. Nonetheless, he ensured some posterity by reworking and donating this large canvas to the infant Queensland National Art Gallery upon its opening in 1895.

Christine Dixon

1 Margaret Maynard, ‘Jenner, Isaac Walter (1837–1902)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, online edition, viewed November 2007,

2 Gavin Fry, Bronwyn Mahoney, Bettina MacAulay, Isaac Walter Jenner, Sydney: Beagle Press, 1994, p. 34.

3 See Glen R. Cooke, Catalogue worksheet for Acc. number 1:0014, Queensland Art Gallery, ms.