This year, 2012, marks the 100th anniversary of Robert F. Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. For those who are unaware, Scott and four companions reached the Pole on 17th January – having been beaten by the Norwegian, Amundsen, and his team a little over a month before – and died three months later on their way back to their base camp. To mark the occasion, an exhibition of Antarctic photography is taking place in The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London. This exhibition includes photographs from Scott’s expedition (known as the ‘Terra Nova’) and Ernest Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’ expedition of 1914-17.
I’ve developed a bit of an interest in Antarctica, and particularly this period in its history (known as the ‘Golden Age’ of Antarctic exploration), after reading a novel, Antarctic Navigation by Elizabeth Arthur, last year. I thought this exhibition looked very interesting and decided to pay it a visit, managing to persuade two friends to accompany me.
Photographs were very important to the explorers on these expeditions. They acted as proof of their achievements and evidence of the breathtaking environment they were surrounded by. They recorded scientific findings, the beauty of Antarctica, and the hardships of the journey. They also helped to raise the profile of the expeditions in the public eye, provided material for subsequent exhibitions, and could be sold as prints to raise money to pay debts.
The photographs were donated to the reigning monarch at the time, hence their appearance in the Royal Collection. I will write about the exhibition itself first and the Queen’s Gallery later.
***The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography***
The exhibition takes place in two large rooms in the Queen’s Gallery. As well as pictures, editions of books about the expeditions are on display alongside a map of Antarctica and a timeline. Also displayed are the British flags used on both the ‘Endurance’ and ‘Terra Nova’ expeditions, the last recovered from the tent containing the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers.
The first part of the exhibition covers Robert F. Scott’s ‘Terra Nova’ expedition of 1910-12. It takes place in one large room with two smaller rooms alongside. The majority of these photographs were taken by official photographer Herbert Ponting.
These photographs are incredibly beautiful, stunning and dramatic. Looking at them I got a sense of the excitement Ponting must have felt at the strangeness of this new world. Several scenes involve tiny figures standing beneath huge ice sculptures (‘Castle Berg’, a picture of an iceberg that resembled a medieval castle, is a notable example). Another shot shows the ship, the ‘Terra Nova’, taken through an overhang of ice. Two pictures of amusing, adorable Adelie penguins hang on opposite sides of the wall (as postcards, these became bestsellers after the original exhibition).
A number of photographs show the members of the expedition in and outside the hut (which still stands to this day). The explorers look happy and optimistic about the future. One shot of Scott’s birthday party is particularly poignant, as it was to be his last. In a side room are photographs of the five members of the polar party (the rest of the group remained behind): Edgar Evans, Edward Wilson, Robert Falcon Scott, Henry Robertson Bowers, Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates. All of these men reached the South Pole and died on their return.
Ponting did not form part of the polar party, so the photographs from this stage of the exhibition were taken by Henry Bowers, to whom Ponting taught photography while in Antarctica. When the photographs were originally exhibited, these photographs were displayed in the centre of the room with Ponting’s around the outside. This exhibition has replicated that and these central photos detail the party on the move, pulling their sledges, and their achievement of reaching the South Pole. The men look exhausted and dejected – perhaps unsurprising as they had travelled all that way only to be beaten in the race to be first. The final photograph is of the cairn built over the tent containing the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers, located in November after a search party was sent out to look for the men.
Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’ expedition of 1914-17 is the other expedition covered in this exhibition. Originally aiming to cross the polar continent, it became apparent that it was appropriately named, as the ship ‘Endurance’ became trapped in pack ice and eventually crushed. Without a ship, the only hope the crew had of escape was to use the lifeboats. The explorers made it to dry land, and Shackleton and a number of his men set off on a risky and uncertain trip to South Georgia in order to get help, leaving the remainder to wait and hope.
Photographer Frank Hurley was responsible for the photographs in this section of the exhibition. He documented the adventures of the ship as it became trapped in the ice and eventually crushed. His pictures also have a strong narrative quality which makes them particularly interesting. They capture the beauty of the ice and the smallness and relative fragility of the ‘Endurance’ surrounded by this beautiful but lethal stuff. Several photographs detail the men going about their day to day business, playing chess, exercising the dogs or carrying out scientific experiments. I do wish a bit more information had been provided. For example, several pictures referred to the ‘Welsh stowaway’ – I would have liked to know more about him and how he ended up on the ship!
Hurley was not chosen to accompany Shackleton on his quest for help. Therefore his later pictures show the life he lived for four months with the other men left behind, waiting for Shackleton to return, living in a hut made of the two remaining lifeboats and living off penguin meat. This is fascinating in itself.
I found it interesting that some of the photographs were renamed to give the impression that they were images of a different event. For example, the photograph that Hurley claimed was of Shackleton’s return to rescue the men was actually his departure in search of help. This adds to the narrative quality of the pictures but not their authenticity!
I found the whole exhibition fascinating and managed to spend nearly two hours in there, which was impressive considering there were only two large rooms. I thought that the photographs were well presented and the accompanying objects were well chosen. The map and timeline provided made it possible to understand the pictures in context.
The two sets of photographs provided an interesting contrast, with Ponting’s pictures that were largely made up of beautiful shots of interesting landmarks, and Hurley’s photographs that generally told a story. One of my friends preferred the latter, as she said that she found them more interesting. I however preferred the former, as I thought that they really captured the beauty and fascination of Antarctica.
Overall, though, both sets of photographs were beautiful, informative and fascinating and credit must go to both photographers for taking such care with their work in such harsh and hostile conditions. They must have felt frustrated at not being able to record what they saw in colour, but their black and white shots are stunning and dramatic.
As a slight aside, I found the exhibition made me think about the nature of success. On the way back one of my friends said that Shackleton had seemed to be more successful. But was he? I pointed out that he didn’t actually achieve his aim of crossing Antarctica. However, he and his crew demonstrated great courage and all of his men survived against the odds. Scott, on the other hand, succeeded in his aim of reaching the South Pole (albeit too late to be the first) – but his polar team all died. Who was the most successful? I am still pondering this!
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to this exhibition and my experience of the Gallery as a whole was very positive. My friends thought that £7.50 was a good price for a year’s admission, but felt that it was a bit steep for one exhibition alone. I would personally have been happy to pay just for this exhibition as I feel it was worth it – however I do have an interest in the subject matter.
I would highly recommend ‘The Heart of the Great Alone’ which is on until 15th April 2012. However if you can’t make it or aren’t interested I would recommend the Queen’s Gallery in general as it is well worth a visit. The next exhibition is ‘Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist’ from 4 May to 7 October 2012.
The website for the exhibition is available at http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/microsites/HOTGA/ and a number of photographs are available to view there.
If you are interested in this topic, I would wholeheartedly recommend the novel Antarctic Navigation by Elizabeth Arthur, a fictional account of one woman’s quest to visit Antarctica and recreate Scott’s ill-fated expedition (I want to write a proper review on this at some point). Also, if you live in or near Cambridge, the Scott Polar Research Institute has an exhibition about Scott and the ‘Terra Nova’ expedition at the moment.
A book made up of photographs from the exhibition has been released to coincide with it. Entitled, like the exhibition, The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography, it is available from the Queen’s Gallery gift shop and from Amazon.