by Maev Kennedy
The last beautiful images taken by Captain Scott of his doomed Antarctic expedition have been published after lying for almost a century unrecognised in a cardboard box in a photographic archive.
Robert Falcon Scott and his companions froze and starved to death in their tent just 11 miles from a food and fuel cache, during their Terra Nova expedition which had reached the South Pole in January 1912. By the time the bodies were found in November that year, a copyright row had already begun that would keep Scott’s photographs out of the public gaze.
After two years of lectures, exhibitions, slide shows and film screenings, and a bitter clash over who owned the rights, thousands of photographs, along with Scott’s images, were returned to the expedition photographer, Herbert Ponting.
The nitrate film of the collection disintegrated, but a single set of positives printed by Ponting survived, stored loose in a cardboard box. Ponting died in 1935.
The images were bought by a commercial picture agency but their true identity still went unrecognised. They resurfaced when part of the archive was sold at auction.
In 2001 the Scott photographs were bought by Richard Kossow, an American antiquarian bookseller based in London, at an auction in New York where they attracted surprisingly little attention. “Most collectors didn’t know about the sale, and those who did didn’t take it seriously,” Kossow said.
Kossow subsequently met David M Wilson, the polar historian and great nephew of Edward Wilson, who had died with Scott. The pair collaborated on a book The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott, which was written by Wilson and published this week.
Wilson said: “The surprise is not that he took photographs but how good they are. He was taught by a master, Herbert Ponting, andin the beginning he made all the obvious mistakes, but he was showing signs of becoming every bit as good as his teacher.
“And he attempted things Ponting never did, such as action shots in which we can see the ponies stumbling and the men struggling to drag sledges through knee-deep snow.
“It shouldn’t be such a surprise that he had such an artistic streak – after all, he married a sculptor, and his son was an artist. But it’s an aspect of Scott’s character that people have never had the chance of considering.”
The Natural History Museum is exhibiting some of Scott’s photographs from January next year, and the Royal Collection is about to exhibit photographs by both Ponting and Sir Ernest Shackleton’s photographer, Frank Hurley. In Cambridge the Scott Institute is mounting an exhibition on the man who beat Scott to the pole, Roald Amundsen. In London the Atlas photography gallery will, in November, also be exhibiting Scott prints.
In 1910 and 1911, as Scott struggled to raise funds and public support for the Terra Nova venture – media hysteria about the race to the pole was the reason the South Pole was bolted onto the scientific expedition – the explorer knew the propaganda value of superb images. He recruited Ponting at a higher salary than any of his scientists.
Ponting’s dazzling images have become icons of Antarctica but he was not fit enough, and his equipment was far too heavy for the final stage of the journey. Scott asked Ponting to teach his party the rudiments of photography.
Ponting recorded that Scott committed every beginner’s sin, including coming back announcing he had secured great images only to discover he had forgotten to take the lens cap off.
The professional photographer processed Scott’s last roll of film in the team’s expedition base hut. The images include a landscape that was taken to illustrate the geological layers but which became particularly poignant for Wilson; it shows his great uncle, a talented artist, sitting on the sledge in the sun, sketching.
Ponting, developing the film, was elated at the quality of the images – pictures that Scott would never see. “Give these to the captain when he gets back,” Ponting had said to another member of the team, “he’s going to love them.”