Icelandic Pictures Drawn With Pen And Pencil (1893)

Although he was not the most compelling writer among the travellers to Iceland in the 19th century, Frederick Howell produced a book that is noteworthy in two ways: first, he visited many parts of the island that were overlooked by most other travellers; and second, his black and white drawings (and some early photographs) are excellent depictions of the Icelandic landscape a little over a hundred years ago.


"But didn't you find it very cold?" is a question so often asked the writer, that he fears there are many intelligent Englishmen yet to whom Saga Land is little else than an ice-bound, ice-clad, ice-capped isle, save where Hekla's flames or Geysir's floods have pierced the crystalline crust! To such, these pages will come with special interest, revealing the wealth of historic lore and the fulness of mountain beauty possessed by Iceland. And even the snowfields themselves, in the hot bright summer days, become dazzling fairylands, while the wild-flowers at their feet can rival those of many a Switzer Alp. There are few countries in which such great changes of scenery occur within a compass so limited. From pasture to desert, from peak to sea, from ice to lava is often a transition for which an hour may suffice. It is true that monuments of antiquity are conspicuous only by their absence; but the presence of a people with the language and many of the customs of a thousand years ago is a monument of itself....

Twice the author has travelled through the island, in 1890 and 1891; primarily, perhaps, as a mountaineer in quest of its highest summit, virgin till 1891, but with deep and growing interest in the land itself. In addition, he has consulted five-and-twenty works of Icelandic travel, and over thirty articles in other books pertaining to the. It is therefore hoped that Icelandic Pictures will be found to contain as complete a sketch of the island as its limits permit, and that it will prove useful to many who may be led to visit a land in which travel becomes more easy every year, but which permits the wayfarer to lose himself in the atmosphere and surroundings of an old world life.

An hour later we anchored off Húsavik, the house-bay of Garthar Svavarson, where a few lights twinkled through the gloom, from the trading-station, which here lies on a shelf, some distance above high water. It is the starting-point for Mývatn, and for the Dettifoss, the Tumbling Force, the grandest fall in Iceland, and probably, for height and size combined, the finest too in Europe.

Eastward from Húsavik lies a tract of peat-bog, and then a stony desert, but in a few miles a very ancient lava bed is reached, so far disintegrated that a dwarf birch forest has sprung up and thriven, scenting the air deliciously, and forming the resort of innumerable red-winged thrushes, who chirped and fluttered through the low branches in all directions. At intervals are little cracks which intersect the lava; some of them six feet wide and thirty feet deep, still hiding drifts of last year's snow, and crossed by natural stone bridges, like miniature crevasses. They doubtless owe their origin to contraction of the cooling rock.

The first day's march ends at the farm of Ás, near the great Jökulsá i Axarfirthi, a kind of Icelandic Nile, which, draining the northern glaciers of the Vatna Jökull, unites its turbid feeders, and hurries off to the Axefirth, from which it takes its name, in a stream whose total length is one hundred and twenty miles, during the later sixty-five of which it receives not a single tributary worth the name. It is this noble river which forms the Dettifoss. Turning southward at Ás, the track leads through another birch and heather wood, and after an hour descends to the level of the water. The scenery here is really grand – a wild, weird spot that would charm an artist. Between us and the river rose almost as it were from the very bed of the rushing torrent, the Hljóthaklettar (sounding, or echoing cliffs), a nest of prehistoric craters, which have poured out alternately lava and stones, and ashes. The cliffs rise to a height of about two hundred feet perpendicularly, and present a wall-like appearance. The erosion of some of the softer parts has well exposed the contorted and picturesque forms of the interjacent lava.

In another half-hour the farm of Svínadalr, a convenient halfway-house, is reached. Two or three miles above it, the river runs through a fine gorge, two hundred and fifty feet in depth, and about as far beyond the gorge a rising cloud of curling mist-wreaths proclaims the presence of the waterfall. Passing at first a basalt ledge, the flood breaks up into rapids, and dashes on to a spot where a rift in the lava has split its bed into a vast ravine, one hundred and eighty feet in perpendicular depth and five hundred feet across. Into this V shaped cleft, the already milk-white river hurls itself with a deafening roar, in a sheet four hundred yards in width. Midway some knobs of basalt project, and the wild rebound of the falling mass flings sheets of shattered foam into the awful sweep of the plunging flood, till the whole resembles a lamb's-wool fleece depending from the crag. And this is set in the jaws of the black abyss, where nothing detracts from the startling but truly Icelandic contrast. Yet, however fine in its summer guise, it must surpass itself when, in spring time, with a greater width by far, the mad career of huge blocks of ice hustling each other over the brink, must form an almost appallingly grand scene, a continuous avalanche and a waterfall combined.

More illustrations from Icelandic Pictures Drawn With Pen And Pencil (1893)
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