“After Icebergs with a Painter: A Summer Voyage to Labrador and Around Newfoundland”
By Louis Legrand Noble; Black Dome Press, 2022; 235 pages; $19.95.
To modern readers, “after icebergs” may suggest our experience with climate change and the fact that Arctic and glacial ice are diminishing. We may soon be in a time when icebergs are no longer found where they were in the past. In “After Icebergs with a Painter,” though, the meaning is about going after icebergs, as on a hunt. The book is a reprint of a long-out-of-print manuscript — a diary, really — from an 1859 voyage by an artist and his companion, a writer, to witness and paint giant icebergs floating along North America’s northeastern coast.
A very helpful foreword by art historian William L. Coleman explains who the two participants were and their expedition goals. The artist, Frederic Edwin Church, was an internationally famous American landscape painter; his monumental masterpiece, “The Icebergs,” is depicted on the book’s cover. The writer, Louis Legrand Noble, was a clergyman, poet and biographer. The two were smitten with the idea popular at the time of nature as “sublime” — beautiful and awe-inspiring but also threatening in its wildness. They were also fascinated by the era’s Arctic explorations, including the lost Franklin Expedition of a decade earlier. In fact, although “The Icebergs” was completed and first exhibited in 1861, Church later painted in a broken ship’s mast in the foreground as a reminder of the tragic fate of Franklin and his crew — and of the weakness of man in the face of powerful Nature.
A map early in the book shows the route the two men took, mostly on a hired schooner — from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Cape Breton Island, then out across the Atlantic to the East Coast of Newfoundland, up to Labrador, then back down the west coast of Newfoundland past the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This was all what they called “British America,” and the people they met along the way were settler Brits, Scots and Irish, along with Indigenous. (These last were not much observed except as parishioners of clergy who were christianizing them.) The route took the men among icebergs and to various settlements for just over a month.
The search was for the most magnificent icebergs among the dozens sometimes in view all at once. When a prime specimen was chosen, the men set off in a whaleboat rowed by a crew. Once they were within a close but reasonably safe distance, the crew fought wind and currents to hold the boat in position while Church sketched and painted and Noble made his notes.
The many sketches and paintings included in the pages are nearly all new to this edition and display Church’s realistic, near-scientific approach.
A person might think that there are only so many words with which to describe icebergs, but Noble goes on at length describing, comparing, and celebrating the various “ice-islands,” as the sailors called them. A single large one resembles first “a cluster of Chinese buildings,” then “a Gothic cathedral, early style,” which “soon transmuted into something like the Coliseum, its vast interior now a delicate blue and then a greenish white.” Smaller bergs “resembled the ruins of a marble city.” A “huge ship of war” with “a majestic figurehead,” broke into “some gigantic sculpture.” Another “shines like polished silver dripping with dews.” If Noble’s prose is often ornate and overwrought with classical and Biblical references, it still “paints a picture” to rival that of the artist with his oils.
For 1859, Church and Noble were surprisingly accurate in their scientific understandings. They knew that the icebergs came from Greenland, having broken off the bottoms of moving glaciers and been driven west by wind and currents. Noble learned from speaking with “ignorant” people in Labrador that most knew nothing of glaciers and believed that icebergs “were merely the accumulations of loose ice, snow and frozen spray.”
From their attentive study, the two men also understood that the much greater mass of icebergs lay under the water and that individual bergs might be either floating or grounded. They knew that water and sun melted the ice to create their sculptural elements and gradually unbalance them, causing them to turn and roll and break apart. It’s less clear whether they understood the relationships between ice density and the colors they observed.
Always, they were a bit nervous — less than the sailors who rowed them — about coming too close to large icebergs. They heard stories along the way of boats crushed and swamped and had one close call themselves — when the upper face of a berg broke off and plunged to the sea in a “huge cataract of green and snowy fragments,” leaving the berg rocking. The whaleboat “breasted the lofty swells.”
Although the book’s focus rests firmly on the icebergs and the grand and wild nature they symbolized, a reader will also learn of whales and landscapes encountered and the lives of some who lived along the coast. Noble includes descriptions of fishermen (“a russet, tangle-haired and shaggy-bearded set”), boats, nets and flakes — the platforms built of poles and covered with branches and sheets of birchbark used for drying cod and salmon. He describes the sealing industry that involved clubbing baby seals, visiting a cod-liver oil factory and eating a meal of fried capelin and cods’ tongues.
Today, iceberg tourism is popular along the eastern coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador. According to a recent tourism fact sheet, of the 40,000 medium to large icebergs that launch from Greenland each year, 400-800 typically reach the Canadian coast. Scientists believe that today’s fast glacier melt may mean more icebergs in the near term but fewer in the future. We have “After Icebergs with a Painter” and other narratives of the time against which to gauge the change to come.