Treasures Revealed Episode 11 – Robert Hood Watercolours

Greenish stylized treasure chest with Library and Archives Canada maple leaves at the bottom and rays rising from the chest at the top. Numbered 11. 

Robert Hood was only 24 in 1821, when he participated in the 1st of the infamous Franklin Expeditions. Hood was to take navigational, geographical and meteorological observations, and to make drawings of the land and of various objects of natural history. Unfortunately, Hood would not live to see his paintings published in Franklin’s account. In this episode LAC Archivist Shane McCord tells us about the tragic story of Robert Hood and the treasures he left behind, which are now part of the LAC collection.

Duration: 15:12

File size: 21.0 MB Download MP3

Publish Date: May 11, 2023

  • Transcript of Treasures Revealed episode 11

    Théo Martin (TM): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Théo Martin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

    Welcome to Treasures Revealed!

    In this podcast series, we’ll be showcasing certain items in the Library and Archives Canada collection. Each episode, we’ll speak to a LAC employee and highlight an item that they consider a real “treasure” in our collection.

    They may be rare items, perhaps unusual or valuable, or items with historical significance. Perhaps they will have a compelling or interesting story to go along with them. More importantly, all of them will showcase our vast and rich collection that is the shared documentary heritage of all Canadians.

    Now, on to Episode 11, “Robert Hood Watercolours.”

    The search for the Northwest Passage remains one of the most exciting episodes in Canadian history. Following the Napoleonic Wars, the British Admiralty turned its efforts to the discovery of a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Arctic. The first of these expeditions, led by Lieutenant John Franklin, sought to survey and chart the area from Hudson Bay to the north coast of Canada, eastward from the mouth of the Coppermine River.

    British Royal Navy petty officer Robert Hood was only 24 in 1821, when he participated in the overland expedition. Hood was to take navigational, geographical and meteorological observations, and to make drawings of the land and of various objects of natural history. Unfortunately, Hood would not live to see his paintings published in Franklin’s account. Here to tell us more about the tragic story of Robert Hood, and the treasures we’ll be discussing today, is LAC Art Archivist Shane McCord.

    Shane McCord (SM): So my name is Shane McCord, and I'm an Art Archivist at LAC. I have been at LAC for gosh, about 10 years, starting in 2010.

    TM: We asked Shane to tell us about the treasures we are discussing today from the LAC collection.

    SM: These are four paintings that come from Robert Hood that were done on Franklin's 1819–1822 overland expedition. So Robert Hood was one of the artists who was on this ill-fated expedition. These paintings I particularly like because most of his work was lost. He died on the trip, and we can get to that later, but his sketchbook was lost during the trip. These were sent back to England in an early phase of the trip, so they're really sort of a rare and interesting thing.

    TM: There are four Robert Hood watercolours held by LAC. What is likely the final surviving work by Hood, from May 1821, is titled Portraits of the Inuit Interpreters from Churchill Employed by the North Land Expedition. The three other watercolours were painted during the previous year while the expedition wintered at Cumberland House.

    In January 1820, he drew a mink as it dipped a paw into the water along a rocky shore. Another painting shows a cross fox just as it caught a mouse in the snow.

    The most interesting watercolour, taken on a trek to the Pasquia Hills, shows the interior of a Cree tent.

    Who was Robert Hood? How did he end up on this trip with Sir John Franklin?

    SM: So, as with many of the people on the Franklin trip, there's a lot of questions about it. Sometimes it's a matter of being the right person in the right place at the right time. Hood was a midshipman, an officer of sort of, reasonably low-ranking officer in the British Navy. The real reason he gets on to this trip is that when he went for a promotion, he presented his private journals, and they included all kinds of drawings, watercolours and descriptions of naval life. The officers noticed that, and that's what they needed for this. The Franklin expedition is before the camera, so they're taking artists to document the trip as scientists, part of their scientific observation. Of course, Hood too was a cartographer to a degree, and a scientist.

    TM: Hood was no ordinary seaman. He was also a gifted draftsman, cartographer, scientist, natural historian and anthropologist. During the expedition, he noted the weather conditions, charted more than 950 kilometres of coastline, and was the first European to document various species of animals and insects. According to Professor C.S. Houston at the University of Saskatchewan, Hood also discovered the electromagnetic nature of the aurora borealis (the northern lights).

    During the winter of 1821, Hood worked intensely on his drawings, paintings and observations, in the process weakening his health through lack of air and exercise. In June 1821, the expedition set out for the mouth of the Coppermine River. It had for some time suffered from a severe shortage of provisions.

    Shane tells us more.

    SM: Later on, in the context of the return journey was, they're all these British officers, and the voyageurs are starving. Hood is quite weak. But all of these explorers are in absolutely dreadful condition. Hood can barely breathe. And they're eating tripe de roche, a kind of lichen. It makes them very sick, but it's all they can really get. And of course this is also the expedition famous for people being known for eating their own boots, among other things.

    TM: All the members of the expedition were suffering from malnutrition and exhaustion. Sir John Franklin made a comment that would become famous: "There was no tripe de roche, so we drank tea and ate some of our shoes for supper."

    At some point, according to John Richardson's journal, Richardson and Hood began to suspect that one of the voyageurs, Michel Terohaute, had killed three missing voyageurs, and was disappearing from camp to feed on their corpses.

    SM: Richardson goes off to find some more tripe de roche for them to eat, and he hears a shot. They come back to the camp. Hood is dead. Michel claims that it was an accident while he was cleaning his gun. They don't believe him, and well, the rest is sort of history. Michel ends up being shot by Richardson, because I think those two were afraid that he'd come after them next.

    It's a fascinating story. I told it in brief terms here, but it's on, the Dictionary of Canadian Biography has a good summary, and it's been told a bunch of different places, and I encourage people to go look for it.

    TM: In 2015, LAC purchased the four watercolours by Hood, providing a unique record of Franklin’s first expedition. The paintings are even more remarkable when you consider that at times, it was so cold that Hood’s brush would freeze to the paper. His drawings join other Arctic treasures at LAC, including a sketchbook by the artist George Back.

    We asked Shane to tell us about when he first saw these watercolours, and how they ended up at LAC.

    SM: Well, I mean in some ways I'd already seen some of them because I knew of prints that had been done from Hood's paintings. They had been published in Franklin's own journals after the expedition; when Franklin published, he used a lot of Hood's work. And in fact in our collection we have copies of some of those prints.

    But many of the watercolours were lost. We had no idea where they were. And quite honestly these fell into my lap out of the blue—or into our lap. We got a call one day from a woman who'd had them in her grandmother's attic, and her grandmother had told her, sort of on her deathbed, that they were very important. She had been in touch with some people, she used to live in the U.K., and she'd been in touch with some people there, and they recommended they get in touch with us. And that's how we learned about them.

    TM: Was this person a distant relative of Robert Hood’s?

    SM: So she didn't really know. But we did, and my colleague Mary Margaret Johnston Miller, another art archivist, did some excellent genealogical research. We sort of tracked down possible chains of provenance, and yeah, there was a family connection there.

    TM: Shane, why do you consider these watercolours by Robert Hood to be treasures?

    SM: Part of it is just that connection to this epic story. We have, these are actual things done by this narrative that we all sort of talk about in Canada. I know I for one saw a lot of Pierre Berton when I was a teenager, and finding these, that really made a connection for me personally.

    But I think too they are fascinating things in terms of what colonial efforts were doing then, and I think you have to go, you have to connect these paintings to the journals that Hood wrote and also to the journals written by Franklin and Back on the same expedition. You get the sense of three very different men. Hood to me is the real scientist of the bunch, and I think there's something quite noble about that. Sort of that, that Francis Bacon tradition of objectivity that Hood is carrying on. And he's trying to document the creatures and the animals that he's seeing out in this land that no European at that time had been to, and to bring that knowledge back.

    So when you see the picture of the cross fox, for instance, which is probably my favourite of the batch. It's a dramatic scene, you know, you've got this fox catching a mouse, stepping right on it. Now at this point Hood’s probably not jealous of the mouse although he would later become so. These were all done at Cumberland House very early in the expedition, though it's a very cold winter. And I think, I'm rambling here, but we're getting on to some of the details that make these exciting.

    So that winter at Cumberland House was an extremely cold one, and in Hood's journals he describes, you know, first his fingers freeze to the metal part of the brush where you, that holds the bristles on to it. And then the brush freezes to the paper. So, painting at all under these circumstances is a very difficult operation and painting for the sake of science, I think, is really what makes these so interesting for me. Because often we think of art as just being, you know, about our emotions or about an expression of self, whereas that's not really what's going on here. This was to bring back information and to expand what Hood understood to be human knowledge, and to bring the knowledge of North America to other parts of the world.

    TM: All four of these drawings relay important documentary evidence about the region of Cumberland House, in what is now northern Saskatchewan. These drawings are also fascinating simply as items that made the ill-fated journey and survived to tell the tale. The Franklin expeditions are an important part of the history of Canada’s development as a nation, and the tragic aspects of the first expedition in particular have made it one of the most popular and well-known episodes in Arctic history.

    If you’re interested in viewing these watercolours, you can use LAC’s Collection Search and type in Robert Hood, or you can go to LAC’s Flickr page. There, you will find an album of images called Treasures Revealed. We will update that album with each episode, giving you a chance to view the treasures that we will be highlighting. We will also add a link to the Flickr album in the Related Links section on the episode page for this podcast.

    Thank you for being with us. I’m Théo Martin, your host. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thank you to our guest today, Shane McCord. Special thanks also to Isabel Larocque for her contributions to this episode.

    The music in this episode was provided by Blue Dot Sessions.

    This episode was produced, engineered and edited by David Knox, with additional editing and sound design by Tom Thompson.

    If you liked this episode, you’re invited to subscribe to the podcast. You can do it through the RSS feed located on our website, Apple Podcasts, or wherever else you get your podcasts.

    If you’re interested in listening to the French equivalent of our podcast, you can find French-language versions of all our episodes on our website, Apple podcasts and Spotify. Simply search for “Découvrez Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.”

    For more information on our podcasts, go to LAC’s homepage and type “podcast” in the search bar in the top right corner and click on the first link. If you have questions, comments or suggestions, you can find the email address for the podcast team located at the bottom of the episode page.

Host: Théo Martin, Archivist, Performing Arts Archives

Guest: Shane McCord, Senior Archivist, Private Archives and Published Heritage Branch (formerly Art Archivist)


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