Jackson's portrait of the traveller, author, artist and naval captain George Francis Lyon in Artic dress probably dates to his return from Parry's second voyage in search of the Northwest Passage of 1821-23.
Born in Chichester in 1795, the son of a colonel in the army, Lyon entered the navy in 1808, rising to flag-lieutenant to Rear-admiral Penrose on the Albion in 1815 and taking part in the battle of Algiers the following year.
He travelled in Africa in search of the Niger with Mr Ritchie (secretary of the embassy in Paris) 'in the interests of the government' in 1818, heading south in disguise as a convert to Islam from Tripoli through the Sahara to the Sudan. In extreme temperatures Ritchie was taken ill and died. Lyon pushed on alone towards the southern boundary of Fezzan before struggling back to Tripoli with a slave caravan and returning to London in the summer of 1820. Lyons' account of the journey (A Narrative of Travels in North Africa in the years 1818, 1819 and 1820, accompanied by Geographical Notices of Soudan and of the Course of the Niger) was published in 1821, illustrated with plates from the author's own drawings.
In the same year the admiralty promoted him to commander and appointed him to the discovery ship Hecla under the orders of Captain Parry. Parry and Lyon took their barque rigged strengthened bomb vessels HMS Fury and HMS Hecla, accompanied by a transport across the North Atlantic, to continue the search for a passage through to the Pacific via Hudson Strait. They were ordered to map the northern limits of the American continent in tandem with Franklin's concurrent first overland exploring journey along the northern American coast.
Parry's ships were provisioned for three years. Improvements, gleaned from experiences on his first Artic voyage, included a stove which circulated warm air to the living quarters, kiln dried flour which supplied crew with fresh bread rather than hard tack, and casks of squeezed lemon juice, their anti-scorbutic, topped up with rum to hinder freezing.
Parry and Lyon charted 600 miles of coastline before Christmas and overwintering by the Winter Island. Lyon took charge of entertainments throught the winter which featured musicals, theatre and schooling for the seamen (all of whom could read and write by the time they returned home). They all met and enjoyed civilised intercourse with the neighbouring Eskimos at Igloolik and entertained them on the Hecla, the dogs and Lyon's black cat amusing the children, and the seamen and Eskimos exchanging songs. Parry would include an Eskimo vocabulary and an appendix concerning their habits and customs in his Narrative.
The two ships sailed north after the first winter, pushing as far as the ice allowed into Fury and Hecla Strait. They returned to Igloolik for a second winter and Lyon undertook a modest sledging journey overland, before they sailed for England in the autumn of 1823.
Lyon was prompted to the rank of captain in November 1823 and published The Private Journal of Captain G.F Lyon of HMS Hecla during the recent Voyage of Discovery under Captain Parry (including plates after his sketches) in 1824.
In January 1824 he had been appointed to the Gripper, a gun brig strengthened for Artic work with orders to get to Repulse Bay and examine the coast beyond Franklin's recent overland farthest west. With a ship od 'lubberly, shameful construction' (Parry), Lyon lost his sea anchors off a lee shore and was forced to return to Portsmouth in November. He was subsequently dismissed by John Barrow. An account of the unsuccessful attempt was published in 1825.
He married Lucy Louisa, the daughter of Lord Edward Fitzgerald in September, 1825 and set out for Mexico the following year as a commissioner of the Real del Monte Mining Company. His packet was wrecked at Holyhead on the voyage home in January 1827. He lost his collections and papers in the wreck and landed to find his wife had died four months earlier. Lyon published an account of his Mexican residence and tour in 1828 before setting forth again, to Brazil on mining business. He died on his way home from Buenos Aires in 1832.
Lyon was portrayed in his African garb by R.J. Lane (National Portrait, Gallery, London), for which see F. Fleming, Barrow's Boys, London, 1998, Section 2, figure 4. He was described at a dinner given by Franklin and his wife on 24 March 1824 (the same time as he would have sat for Jackson) by a fellow guest, Jane Griffin (later Lady Franklin): 'Capt. Lyon was the next object of interest - he is a young man of about 30, of good height & gentlemanly looking - he has large, soft grey eyes, heavy eyelids & good teeth & is altogether very pleasing.' (quoted in F. Fleming, op. cit., p. 157)