Excerpts from Duncan Macmillan, ‘Barbara Rae: The Northwest Passage’

Photography by Ian Ritchie CBE RA

Photography by Ian Ritchie CBE RA

The First Expedition, 2015

To embark for her first voyage, in August 2015 Barbara Rae flew from Ottawa to Kangerlussuaq, a former US Air Force base at the head of a deep fjord on the west coast of Greenland. The edge of the great ice sheet and the Russell Glacier flowing out of it are only a few miles inland. There she joined the Russian ship One Ocean, Akademik Sergei Vavilov. Built as a research ship, as well as taking passengers to visit these remote waters, the Sergei Vavilov still carried people engaged on scientific missions, particularly in this case researching into the prevalence of plastic particles in the Arctic. From Kangerlussuaq, they sailed north up the coast of Greenland, calling at Sisimiut and Ilulissat. Ice blocked the harbour at Ilulissat so they sailed in a Zodiac outboard round the edges of the pack ice in Disko Bay. The ship then crossed Baffin Bay. Meetings with icebergs on the crossing are remembered in Dark Berg and indeed in a whole series of powerful and directly observed small paintings all entitled simply Northwest Passage. Pond Inlet on Baffin Island was the next destination. There Rae witnessed a performance by local Inuit. The voyage from there through Lancaster Sound is recorded in Lancaster Sound, a dramatic large painting of a wall of blue ice. They landed at Dundas Harbour at the mouth of the Croker Glacier on Devon Island, but it was on Beechey Island, a small island at the southwest corner of Devon Island, that they first saw traces of Franklin. The graves of three of his sailors buried there are marked with stones and the grave of John Hartnell of HMS Erebus is recorded in the sketchbook of this voyage.

From Beechey Island the Sergei Vavilov sailed south across Lancaster Sound to Prince Leopold Island. This huge flat rock encircled by 1,000-foot cliffs lies at the northeast tip of Somerset Island and is a bird sanctuary. The visit inspired a dramatic series of monotypes. From there the ship’s course was south through Prince Regent Strait into the Gulf of Boothia that lies between Baffin Island and Somerset Island. At Cresswell Bay, Rae drew the derelict Hudson’s Bay Company trading post. Further south, Fort Ross lies at the entrance to the Bellot Strait. Here for the first time she crossed the tracks of John Rae and his memory is invoked in several works from this voyage.

The Bellot Strait is only half a kilometre wide at its narrowest point. At 71 58’N, its southern shore is the northernmost point of the American continent and in its waters the Atlantic and Pacific meet. The Sergei Vavilov sailed through the Strait into Peel Sound and then Franklin Strait. At Coningham Bay, Inuit hunters had slaughtered Beluga whales. Polar bears made a grisly spectacle feeding on the carcasses. The voyage ended at Cambridge Bay on the south coast of Victoria Island.


The Second Expedition, 2016

The voyage of 2016, also in August, was again in One Ocean, Akademik Sergei Vavilov and followed much the same course from Kangerlussuaq. Flying from Copenhagen and arriving a couple of days early, Rae made a memorable drive to the edge of the ice sheet. The following day, she took

a flight in a chartered plane across the ice cap and along the cliffs of ice that edge it. She was especially struck by seeing blue melt-water pools on the glacier. They are brilliant in colour, but they should not be there for they are further witness to the frighteningly rapid warming of this whole fragile region. This flight over the ice cap has since inspired several major works including the Arctic River paintings of Paradise Valley and the river flowing out of the ice cap seen from the sky. Then setting out northwards along the Greenland coast, the ship’s first port of call was again Sisimiut, where it was warm enough to enjoy a picnic.

It was still sunny at Ilulissat, the next calling point. Unlike the previous year, in 2016 the harbour was ice-free, but there were icebergs breaking off the Jacobshavn glacier. The brilliant sunlight made them gleam crystalline white and cast shadows of intense blue and deep black. This spectacle inspired a whole series of vivid works, such as Dark Entrance – Jacobshavn and Entrance – Jacobshavn.

After the sunshine, it was both rough and foggy during the two days it took to cross Baffin Bay. Pond Inlet was the next port of call. One side of Pond Inlet is Bylot Island. There the Sirmilik Glacier inspired a painting with the pink and white of the glacier stark against dark rock. The next call should have been Dundas Harbour, but two polar bears occupied the landing place. On the way to Dundas Harbour the ship had also taken them into Maxwell Bay to see a spectacular glacier.

At Beechey Island, the artist visited the derelict Hudson’s Bay Company’s Northumberland Hut. Then, as in the previous year, they sailed across the Sound to Prince Leopold Island bird sanctuary. Its huge cliffs inspired paintings like Prince Leopold Island and Distant Sanctuary. After sailing through the Bellot Strait once more, they were again treated to the spectacle of polar bears feasting on slaughtered Beluga whales in Coningham Bay. The voyage ended again at Cambridge Bay.


The Third Expedition, 2017

In 2017 Rae’s voyage was from west to east on the One Ocean, Akademik Ioffe. Later than the two previous voyages, it continued well into September and, so late in the year, the mosses and lichens had already turned from their summer colours to black and brown. The light was brilliant and this is reflected in the luminous palette that she uses in pictures from throughout this voyage, in larger paintings like Sea Ice – Peel Sound for instance, or in small paintings like Sun Line – Isabella Bay. The ship was scheduled to sail from Cambridge Bay, but the bay was closed by ice, so they embarked instead at Resolute Bay on Resolute Island much further north. A hut at Port Leopold on Resolute Bay appears in Port Leopold – Winter Hut, with the Northern Lights making streaks of blue and violet above it, and in several smaller paintings.

Sailing south through Peel Sound inspired some wonderful paintings including, in addition to those mentioned above, large works like Light – Passing Peel Sound. In it a field of ice floes leads the eye to a narrow band of gold and magenta beneath a pitch-black sky. Reaching the western entrance to Bellot Strait, the ship had to wait for an icebreaker to clear a passage, a reminder of the conditions that the explorers had so frequently faced. Once through the strait, they stopped at Fort Ross and then sailed north to Beechey Island and Port Dundas. One new experience on this voyage was sailing in deep water close to the Croker Glacier by Port Dundas. This experience has inspired a whole series of paintings and monotypes in which the great zig-zag of the glacier descending through the cliffs to the sea is the dominant motif. These are all images of dramatic economy.

The ship then sailed down Baffin Island, calling at Pond Inlet and Isabella Bay, before crossing the Davis Strait to Ilulissat. Landing at Ilulissat, Rae joined in chartering a plane as she had done the year before at Kangerlussuaq and once more flew over the ice cap and along the ice cliffs at its edge. At the time of writing no work has yet emerged inspired by this second dramatic flight over the ice cap, but there can be no doubt it will, for this remarkable series of monotypes and of paintings, large and

small, is a work in progress. The artist is still working through the inspiration of the 2017 cruise, as indeed of the two earlier cruises. The creative flow they have unleashed flows still, unabated.

Professor Duncan Macmillan