Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864) by Edwin Landseer
On 19 May 1845, Sir John Franklin led two ships carrying a total of 129 men on a doomed expedition. The goal was to chart a Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic, a vital component for British trade. The crew left with only three years worth of supplies, so when 1848 came and went with no word, several rescue missions were employed. The disappearance of the Franklin expedition was a complete mystery until 1854 when a rescue mission led by John Rae discovered some disturbing information. A local Inuit tribe he spoke to claims to have found items from the expedition as well as the bones of the deceased crew. Disturbingly, some of the bones seemed to have the tell-tale signs of cannibalism.
Ten years later, this grisly end to what was supposed to be a crowning achievement in British expansion inspired artist Edwin Landseer to paint his infamous Man Proposes, God Disposes, showing his interpretation of the fate of the expedition. At the time, the painting wasn't exactly held in high regard in polite Victorian society. However, it captured the attention of the wealthy Thomas Holloway.
Holloway was the founder of Royal Holloway, an institution of higher learning for women. The school officially opened on 30 June1886 with the main building on campus being the Founder's Building. Housed within that building is the Picture Gallery, where the Landseer painting has hung for over 100 years. It is one of 77 paintings acquired by Holloway over a period of three years, between 1880 and 1883, before the college opened. He paid a hefty price, 6,615 pounds for it at Christie's auction, which was a record at the time. Apparently after Holloway's death in 1883, a collection of newspaper articles concerning the doomed expedition was found among his personal affects, leading many to believe he might have been a bit obsessed by the subject.
|By Mark Tollerman|
In 1900, Royal Holloway became part of the University of London, but it wouldn't be until about 20-30 years later that the first inkling of a curse associated with this painting started to surface. As the need for space increased, it was discovered that the Picture Gallery offered a wonderful venue for exams. However, many believed that it was bad luck to sit near, or in front of Man Proposes, God Disposes. To sit near the painting surely meant that the student was doomed to fail her exam.
Men were finally admitted to Royal Holloway beginning with post-graduates in 1945 and undergraduates following 20 years later in 1965, and presumably it was during this post-male invasion of the school where many of the urban legends first began. According to an article from 1984, sometime during the 1970s a popular tradition concerning the painting got its start. A student assigned to take his exam near the painting flat out refused to participate until the creepy work of art was covered. In a panic, the registrar grabbed the only thing big enough to cover it---a Union Jack flag. Since then, the painting is always covered prior to exams with the Union Jack.
Therefore, the next part of the urban legend doesn't really make a lot of sense...
Some students believe that in the 1980s, the painting actually caused a student of unknown gender to commit suicide after gazing into it. Allegedly, the student wrote "The polar bears made me do it," on his or her exam sheet (or in a diary, in some versions of the story) before committing the act in any number of ways. But if the painting had been covered up, as it had during every exam season since the 1970s, how did the student even see it? Did they mean 1880s, or did someone forget the Union Jack one year? Obviously, the school has no records of any student committing suicide in connection to the painting, but that hasn't stopped class after class from taking a little extra precaution!
Davis, Eleanor. 'Grisly 'Cursed' Painting's Story Recalled After Ship Discovery,' 7 October 2014.
MacCulloch, Laura. 'The Haunted Painting of Fabled Franklin Ship Discovered in Canadian Arctic,' 11 September 2014.