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The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography at The Royal Collection

This exhibition of remarkable Antarctic photography by Herbert George Ponting and Frank Hurley marks the 100th anniversary of Captain Scott’s ill-fated journey to the South Pole. Ponting’s extraordinary images record Scott’s Terra Nova expedition of 1910-13, which led to the tragic death of five of the team on their return from the South Pole. Hurley’s dramatic icescapes were taken during Ernest Shackleton’s Polar expedition on Endurance in 1914-16, which ended with the heroic sea journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia. Presented to King George V and today part of the Royal Photograph Collection, these sets of photographs are among the finest examples of the artists’ works in existence.

Royal interest in polar exploration began with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who followed the fortunes of the early adventurers, such as Sir John Franklin and William Bradford. His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, continues the tradition today and has been patron of a number of expeditions undertaken by the explorer David Hempleman-Adams, who has contributed to the catalogue of this exhibition.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912) set sail for Antarctica on Terra Nova in 1910, determined to be the first to reach the South Pole. His team included Herbert Ponting (1870-1935), the first official photographer to participate in a polar expedition. Ponting was already a well-known and successful travel photographer when he was introduced to Scott in 1909. As the ship sailed south from New Zealand, Ponting began work immediately, recording the first icebergs encountered in December 1910 and scenes on board. He photographed as much as possible during his time in Antarctica, producing around 2,000 glass plate negatives between December 1910 and March 1912. A selection of his spectacular pictures of the landscape, the expedition crew, and wildlife including seals, gulls and penguins, is included in the exhibition.

This group of photographs is expertly printed, mostly at the largest size possible. Some images were printed in tones of blue or green to recreate the colours of the ice. Colour was an important element of Ponting’s work, and both he and Scott remarked on the colours of the ice in Antarctica. They were particularly impressed by the ‘ice grotto’, which was the location of what is now one of Ponting’s most iconic images. Other highlights include the magnificent The ramparts of Mount Erebus, which presents the vast scale of the icescape, and the ethereal The freezing of the sea. The images record daily expedition life, including Scott’s last birthday dinner in 1911. Ponting always intended to return to Britain before the rest of the expedition party. He, like the rest of the world, was unaware of the death of Scott and his Polar party until February 1913, almost a year after the tragedy.

Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) had travelled with Captain Scott on an earlier voyage to Antarctica, before leading his own unsuccessful attempt to reach the South Pole in 1907-9. In 1914, galvanised by the achievement of the Pole and Scott’s death, he made a bid to cross the southern continent on foot. Among his team was the Australian photographer Frank Hurley (1885-1962), who joined Shackleton’s ship Endurance in Buenos Aires.

Hurley immediately began photographing activity on board, even climbing the rigging to obtain the best viewpoints. When the ship, crushed between ice floes, began to disintegrate in October 1915, the photographer spent almost three days on the ice, determined not to miss the final moments of the vessel. His images of Endurance listing into the frozen depths are included in the exhibition, along with atmospheric photographs of the ship at night and of the effects of the weather and seasons on the ice.

Hurley salvaged 120 plates, but most of his equipment was lost with the wreck, except for a small pocket camera and three rolls of film, which he used to take photographs on Elephant Island. These images are consequently different from those taken on board Endurance, lacking definition, and evoke the harsh physical conditions the men endured while stranded on the island waiting for rescue. From Elephant Island, Shackleton and five of his crew set off in a desperate voyage in an open boat to South Georgia to get help. Hurley’s photographs record their departure and the rescue of the 22 marooned men nearly five months later. Hurley printed his work in a large exhibition format, but he created a number of special albums of smaller prints, one of which was presented to King George V by Shackleton.

Also included in the exhibition are the flag given to Scott by Queen Alexandra (widow of King Edward VII) in 1910; the Union flag presented by King George V to Shackleton, which he carried with him throughout his epic journey; Polar medals, and books from the Royal Library, including a unique example of Aurora Australis, the first book to be printed in the Antarctic.

The exhibition, which will be shown at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace in 2011, is accompanied by the book The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography by David Hempleman-Adams, Sophie Gordon and Emma Stuart (Royal Collection Publications), exhibition paperback £19.95, hardback £29.95.