John Everett Millais (1829-1896)
"The North-West Passage" (1874)
Oil on canvas
Located in the Tate Britain, London, England
The painting depicts an elderly sailor sitting at a desk, with his daughter seated in a stool beside him. He stares out at the viewer, while she reads from a log-book. On the desk is a large chart depicting complex passageways between incompletely charted islands.
Millais exhibited the painting with the subtitle "It might be done and England should do it", a line imagined to be spoken by the aged sailor. The title and subtitle refer to the repeated failure of British expeditions to find the Northwest Passage, a navigable passageway around the north of the American continent. These expeditions "became synonymous with failure, adversity and death, with men and ships battling against hopeless odds in a frozen wilderness."
The search for the northwest passage had been undertaken repeatedly since the voyages of Henry Hudson in the early 17th century. The most significant attempt was the 1845 expedition led by John Franklin, which had disappeared, apparently without trace. Subsequent expeditions had found evidence that Franklin's two ships had become stuck in ice, and that the crews had died over a number of years from various causes, some having made unsuccessful attempts to escape across the ice. These later expeditions were also unable to navigate a route between Canada and the Arctic. Millais had the idea for the painting when a new expedition to explore the passage, the British Arctic Expedition led by George Nares, was being prepared.