Shiver Me Timbers!

Shiver Me Timbers!

Over the centuries, the writing desk has been an important feature of many households. Some are humble, some are grand, but it’s the kind of furniture that commands respect. It represents the place where its owner sits down to work, presumably on important matters.

A writing desk gives a person a sense of purpose. Whether you’re writing love letters, balancing your accounts, or writing a novel, it’s a much-loved and collected antique.

Sadly now, the writing desk has been replaced for the computer desk and in its more modern representation has lost all the style and adornment found in those beautifully carved and masterful works of art.

How HMS Resolute Came To Be In The White House

Perhaps one of the most famous writing desks to catch our eyes of late is the Resolute desk in the Oval Office of the White House. This commanding desk is made from the salvaged timbers of HMS Resolute, one of five ships commissioned by Queen Victoria to rescue Sir John Franklin from the Northwest Passage leading into the Arctic.

These five ships were just one of many attempts to rescue the Franklin expedition since 1848. All others had failed and this mission in 1853 was to be no different.

All four ships, except for HMS Northstar, a supply ship that had moored off of Beechey Island in Canada, became trapped in the ice. Sir Edward Belcher, Captain of the voyage, ordered his men to abandon ship

Rescue Mission On Ice

So the crew left the seas for the frozen tundra and made their way on foot to Beechey Island. In April 1854, they reached their destination and boarded HMS Northstar, heading home for England.

It was not a friendly welcome for Captain Belcher, who was court-martialled immediately upon his return, never to lead another voyage again. His rescue mission was considered a shambles and Queen Victoria was not impressed with the man for leaving four expensive and able ships marooned in the Arctic.

It was not a friendly welcome for Captain Belcher, who was court-martialled immediately upon his return, never to lead another voyage again. His rescue mission was considered a shambles and Queen Victoria was not impressed with the man for leaving four expensive and able ships marooned in the Arctic.

HMS Resolute Determined To The End

When the ship didn’t respond to their signals, four of the whalers boarded HMS Resolute and found the ship untouched, as if the people on board had just been whisked away. One report details how everything was in situ: lamps and vases were on tables, a set of playing cards lay open on the table, along with several naval charts and Captain Henry Kellett’s logbook.

As was the law of the seas back then, the captain of the American whaling ship laid claim to HMS Resolute and set sail in it for New London, Connecticut.

It was December 24, 1855 when HMS Resolute reached its destination. The ship later fetched the tidy sum of $40,000 from the U.S. government, who believed the Royal Navy ship belonged to its rightful owners.

In December 1856, HMS Resolute sailed into Cowes Harbour on the Isle of Wight to a great crowd, headed by none other than Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

HMS Resolute continued in service to the Royal Navy for about another 20 years. In 1879, it was laid to rest and salvaged. The solid oak timbers were made into three great and noble desks.

In November 1880, Queen Victoria sent one of these beauties to the then President of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes, as a symbol of good faith between the two countries. It was inscribed with its incredible history and a thank you from the Royal Navy and reigning monarchy for its safe return.

Weighing in at 1,300 pounds, the Resolute writing desk takes pride of place in the Oval Office of the White House to this day. The only difference is the addition of a centre panelled door with an engraving of the U.S. seal that was ordered by President Franklin Roosevelt to hide his leg braces.

In the 1960s, the Resolute desk enjoyed an exhibition tour of the United States at the bidding of President Lyndon Johnson. Such was its incredible history and magnificence that Johnson thought it should be on display to the general public. The desk found its final resting place at the Smithsonian Institution, where it stayed until 1977 when President Jimmy Carter had it delivered back to its rightful place of honour in the Oval Office.

Resolute: admirably purposeful, determined and unwavering

Despite the failed rescue attempt, the HMS Resolute was revered as something to be remembered. Probably because of its sheer determination and expert craftsmanship that helped the ship to reach safer shores without the aid of captain and crew, people believed this vessel was something special.

British artist J. Hamer seemed to think so. In 1880, he painted HMS Resolute on her journey south of the Baffin Bay and created a beautifully haunting picture that captures the mood of such a desolate voyage. He called it Resolute, Abandoned and Drifting Out.

Hamer is known for his Arctic scenes and has painted other ships from the Franklin rescue mission, including HMS Alert and HMS Fox.

Though little else is known about the artist Hamer, his reputation for researching his works is well-documented. For his painting of the HMS Resolute, he consulted with Resolute’s crew member, Clements Markham to get a sense of the great vessel. When HMS Resolute was being salvaged, he visited the docks and kept some sections of timber from the ship as a memento. These were auctioned off this fall together with the 1880 painting at Christie’s and expected to reach $34,000-$50,000.

If Queen Victoria were alive today, she would be one of the people bidding on this beautiful painting. She fell in love with the Hamer oil painting and rumour has it, she was seriously thinking of buying it for herself.

Instead, the artist Hamer kept the painting, leaving it to its present owner by descent. This is the first time the painting has been offered at auction. An incredible story for an incredible piece of workmanship.

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