The painting reputed to make students fail exams

By Magazine Monitor
A collection of cultural artefacts

image copyrightRoyal Holloway, University of London

Sir John Franklin's fabled Arctic ship that vanished more than 160 years ago was found this week. But a painting related to its mysterious demise hanging in one university has been haunting exam students for decades, writes Tom Heyden.

"The polar bears made me do it," are the eeriest words to emerge from the urban legend of Edwin Landseer's painting - a grisly depiction of two polar bears hanging at Royal Holloway, University of London. Since the first exams were taken there in the 1920s and 1930s, it's been a painting associated with failure. "If you sit directly in front of it in an exam, you will fail - unless it's covered up," goes the myth, according to the college's curator Dr Laura MacCulloch.

The painting of two polar bears devouring a ship's remains - as well as those of the humans onboard - was inspired by the mysterious disappearance of Sir John Franklin, who led two ships and 129 men to their doom in 1845 trying to chart the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. The macabre spectacle is probably enough to distract even the most conscientious student. But bad luck rumours started almost immediately. There's an obvious connection to failure, says MacCulloch. I'm going to fail my exam just like they failed to find the Northwest Passage, one might conclude - and then I'll get eaten by a polar bear.

image copyrightRoyal Holloway, University of London

In the 1970s, fear of the curse reached fever pitch, says MacCulloch, when a student point blank refused to be seated near it. "The poor registrar, who just wanted to get this exam underway, ran off and tried to find the biggest thing that she could to cover the picture," she says. It turned out to be a massive union jack flag. Ever since, the same flag has adorned the painting every year during exams.

But as that tradition verges on four decades, the urban myth itself has diverged. Recent graduate Michaela Jones was told that a student during an exam had stared directly into one of the polar bears' eyes. Trance-like, the student had then gone "mad" and killed herself - although not before etching the words "The polar bears made me do it" onto her exam paper. Or his paper. "I've heard it was a girl, I've heard it was a boy, I've heard about three [different] ways that they killed themselves," says MacCulloch. Of course, the incident didn't happen. No evidence exists to the contrary in the university's archives.

Nevertheless, "students are quite superstitious," says Jones. "If you speak to anyone at the uni there is a consensus that it's true." And although Jones acknowledges it may be a myth, she definitely wouldn't want to sit an exam without the comfort of the covering flag. "It does relieve people's fears a bit," she says. Luckily for students at Royal Holloway, that tradition is there to stay for now, says MacCulloch.

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