Scale and Awe

The engraved plates incorporated into published accounts of Arctic exploration were important for developing the spiritual significance of the landscape for Romantic writers like Mary Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

​The engraving for 20 September sees the Hecla and Griper in a position similar to that of Coleridge’s mariner, struggling in a channel blocked with protuberances of ice. In the scene, the danger comes from not the imposing mountains in the background, but the floating ice, and the composition of the scene serves to emphasis the contrast; the ice is matched for scale with the ship in the foreground and stands opposed to the looming mountain in the background, a contrast that owes something to the scaled drawings that also feature in Arctic publications.

In the engraving from 1 July, however, a different note is struck. The mismatch in terms of size between the ship and the icebergs is brought into the foreground, which contributes to a growing sense of horror that is only increased by the waves crashing against the towering ice formations and the storm clouds rearing up behind them. Here, Westall is not dispassionately depicting Parry’s journey through the Arctic in a pleasing and proportional fashion; the combination of the size and nature of the ice formations with the movements of the sea and sky summons up in the viewer the feelings of awe and terror, the recognition of the limited nature of man and the boundlessness of nature, that are associated with the concept of the sublime.

William Westall, “Situation of Hecla and Griper, July 1st 1819,” engraving, William Edward Parry, Journal of a Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific: Performed in the Years 1819-20, in His Majesty's Ships Hecla and Griper (John Murray: London, 1821).


William Westall, “Situation of Hecla and Griper, September 20th 1819,” engraving, Parry, Journal of a Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage.