A continent in a paintbox
EXPLORATION: Edward Wilson’s Antarctic Notebooks By DMWilson and CJ Wilson Reardon Publishing, 184pp. £39.99
BEFORE THE ADVENT of colour photography, the only way to record significant events was in black and white – or with pencil and paint. When Capt Robert Falcon Scott’s team reached the South Pole, on January 17th, 1912, the achievement was captured in a photograph and numerous sketches by Edward Wilson, the expedition’s chief of scientific staff. Wilson revealed a continent with his pencils and paintbox. He was one of the last of an era when the main means of recording a barely known continent was by hand – and he depicted in detail the events, discoveries and travails of both of Scott’s Antarctic expeditions.
The Terra Nova expedition of 1910-13 – officially the British Antarctic Expedition, but commonly known after the name of its ship – remains one of the most famous journeys in exploration history. It encountered setbacks from the outset, with fierce storms, heavy swells and a telegram from the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who was setting out to beat the British to the South Pole. Nevertheless, Scott stuck to his original plans rather than engage in the race that Amundsen had declared. Scott’s team spent 1911 undertaking scientific work as well as preparing for the journey to the South Pole.
In January 1912, Scott, Wilson and their colleagues Henry Robertson Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans reached the pole only to find Norwegian flags and a tent. Amundsen had beaten them to it. On the descent of the Beardmore Glacier, fatigue, cold and starvation overtook them; first Evans, then Oates and finally Wilson, Scott and Bowers succumbed to frostbite, fatigue and dehydration. Wilson, Scott and Bowers were only 18km short of their supply depot when they died.
David and Christopher Wilson’s handsome book brings together many of Edward Wilson’s Antarctic paintings, sketches and notes to tell the story of both journeys. There is immense beauty in the images of the stark Antarctic but also poignancy, as many of the images illustrate the last months and days of Scott’s team.
The drawings and paintings were created at considerable personal cost to Edward Wilson. He often suffered severely from the cold while sketching and also from snow blindness, or sunburn of the eye. Scott wrote: “Poor Wilson . . . was writhing in horrible agony . . . have never seen an eye so terribly bloodshot and inflamed . . . an almost intolerable stabbing and burning of the eyeball.” But Wilson’s images provide a remarkable testament to one of the great figures of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, and today’s polar scientists still use the early Wilson sketches to help assess the effects of global warming, comparing them with contemporary photographs of the same features. His dedication to his work and the expedition eventually led him to pay the ultimate price.
Launching this book in London, David Attenborough made no bones about our debt to Scott, Wilson and their colleagues, who gave their lives in the name of science and exploration. With high-definition video footage streaming across the planet 100 years on, one must appreciate the uniqueness of Wilson’s drawings at that time. These images, among the first from this mysterious and unexplored continent, inspired generations of Antarctic scientists and conservationists – not least in the formation of the World Wildlife Fund, the world’s largest conservation organisation.
This book is not simply a reproduction of images and quotations. It is a very personal publication. Edward Wilson was David and Christopher Wilson’s great-uncle. They grew up with his pictures on their walls and artifacts from his expeditions in their home. David Wilson is chairman of the International Scott Centenary Expedition. Chris Wilson is a Wexford-based naturalist whose enthusiasm for nature and the Antarctic is infectious. One of his passions is for Ireland to sign the Antarctic Treaty, so helping to ensure that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful and scientific purposes. Indeed, the royalties from this book will go to the Edward Wilson Memorial Fund at the Scott Polar Research Institute, in Cambridge – and so Edward Wilson’s work continues to contribute to our understanding of that inhospitable continent.