ANCHORAGE, Alaska—In 1826, Capt. Frederick Beechey of the British Royal Navy sailed his ship, the HMS Blossom, farther north than any other expedition had gone before. Almost 200 years later, images from Beechey’s visit are returning to the North Slope.
There's always something going on at the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum's restoration hangar. Lengthy projects are common here, and work on a 1931 Pilgrim plane has been going on for eight years. It's scheduled to be done Thursday -- officials just aren’t sure which Thursday.
In the shadow of the Pilgrim, Seth Irwin is putting the final touches on his project. It's only taken 184 years, and has involved an 18-gun sloop-of-war, a rare book and art dealer, and a young lieutenant in the Royal Navy.
In 1826, the Blossom was on a mission to help find the Northwest Passage, a rumored ice-free polar strait between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans above North America.
“When it sailed into the Barrow area, it was the first time that the Natives there had ever seen a sailing ship and white people,” Irwin said.
Beechey and his crew weren't successful in their search for the passage, but they did leave their mark on the Arctic. Today's maps still bear the names given to landmarks by the expedition: Beechey Point, Point Hope and even the name Point Barrow.
When the Blossom finally sailed off to explore other parts of the Pacific, it wouldn't be the last time that it would have an impact on the history of the North Slope area.
Almost two centuries later, Richard Wood, a rare book and art dealer in Juneau, contacted the North Slope Borough. He had come across an auction in London that had some items for sale from the Blossom's visit to Barrow.
Thanks to that tip, the borough mayor's office now owns three small watercolor paintings -- and a very significant piece of Alaska history.
Irwin, Alaska’s only freelance paper conservator, is currently working on the heritage museum’s photo archives. But the museum, realizing the importance of the paintings, freed up Irwin's time and donated the work space so that he could work on the Blossom paintings.
“I've retouched them and patched them and filled them to make them look less distracting,” Irwin said. “They're in fantastic shape for the amount of exposure they probably got.”
Irwin has invested 60 hours in cleaning and stabilizing the paintings, which were painted by the expedition’s artist, Royal Navy Lt. William Smyth. In 1826, Smyth was a 26-year-old member of the Blossom's crew.
“He was very much a stickler for detail,” Irwin said.
Smyth’s job was to make visual records of the journey's experiences. His first painting depicts a barge -- one of the Blossom’s smaller boats, typically used in water too shallow or icy for the ship -- in rough water.
The second painting shows a work crew setting up a signal pole.
“They were actually leaving messages in bottles buried under the pole -- it was a way to signal a ship at sea that, ‘There is a message here for you,’” Irwin said.
Today, however, the third painting is the one of most interest. It shows an Inupiat man, a woman and a child -- before any outside influences. How they dressed, how they looked, where they lived: Smyth’s painting has effectively frozen time for almost 200 years.
“The oldest pictorial that we have of people from that area,” Irwin said. “It's kind of a humbling thing knowing that I'm working on something that was one of the first artifacts to travel to Barrow.”
Irwin says Smyth’s work is particularly important to the history of the region.
“It's a pivotal point in history: the fact that it is the first European expedition to Barrow, and we have a piece of that history that was actually done in Barrow.”
The North Slope Borough bought the watercolors for just under $12,000. Because of the fragile nature of the paintings, borough officials plan to have copies made, which will go on permanent display at the Inupiat Heritage Center in Barrow.
The originals will be displayed from time to time to celebrate special occasions.
Contact Eric Sowl at email@example.com