FRANK HURLEY: Entering the Polar Sea, 11 December 1914.
Artillery Row

Research and rescue

The Falkland Islands bids farewell to the RSS James Clark Ross and a Marylebone gallery hosts a virtual exhibition of Antarctic photographs

I – A Narrows escape

Yomping back from the centre of Stanley Monday lunchtime, my daughter asked me about the lady I interviewed recently who had now gone off to Antarctica. We talked a little about where that was, and why you might feel moved to travel there. Then Freya said that she would like to go “when she gets big”. Bodes well, I thought. At least, until it turned out what she wants is to see polar bears.

But when we got home, and I put her down for a nap, I checked my e-mails (one does not have e-access outside of the house or office, here) and found I had a FWDd government press release, inviting one and all to bid farewell, that evening, to the RSS (Royal Research Ship) James Clark Ross as she departed from the Falklands for the final time.

The weather was foul, but this seemed like what is these days called “a teachable moment”; so, we headed down at half-6ish and stood in the persistent, freezing rain as the James Clark Ross (JCR) performed a stately lap of Stanley Harbour, from the (currently under-utilised) passenger jetty westwards to Government House, then back towards the open sea.

The mood was as festive as it was going to be in those conditions, and as the JCR pulled slowly down the harbour, streamers flying and crew waving, the ship’s tannoy played “Land of Hope and Glory”, accompanied by half the town’s kids on their car horns. (I had rather hoped to see the Governor out saluting in his ostrich feathers – but I was told he’s in South Georgia, currently.) Followed fitfully by vehicles along the Ross Road out of town, the ship swung north, into The Narrows, and then out into the South Atlantic Ocean.

The Falkland Islands are more or less officially branded The Antarctic Gateway, and, as the crowd dispersed, I noted we had been within ten metres of the British Antarctic Monument Trust’s 2014 memorial (sculptor: Oliver Barratt) to the 28 men and women who, from 1948 to 2003, “lost their lives in Antarctica in pursuit of science to benefit us all”. A quiet reminder that enlightenment still rarely comes at zero cost.

Built by Swan Hunter Shipbuilders in the UK and launched by HM The Queen in 1990, the JCR is a supply and research ship operated by the British Antarctic Survey – “a floating platform for biological, oceanographic and geophysical research” – which has been in service for just over 30 years and has been “a familiar and friendly sight within Falkland Islands waters during that time”.

Notable scientific involvements in the past three decades have included studies of global carbon cycles; corroborating satellite climate data; discoveries of the key role of Antarctic krill in fertilising oceans with iron, of unknown species by remote vehicle, and of 12 underwater volcanoes; and the creation of a new Marine Protection Zone in Tristan de Cunha.

The James Clark Ross is named after – you guessed it – James Clark Ross, who joined the Royal Navy as a boy in 1812, took part in half a dozen Arctic expeditions between the ages of 18 and 30, and identified the Magnetic North Pole shortly thereafter. Having been made Captain, he conducted a survey of Britain for four or five years before turning his attention to the coastline of Antarctica in HMS Erebus: one of the earliest purposeful and convincing explorations. Here he discovered the Ross Sea (fortuitous!), Victoria Land (almost as inevitable), the continental volcanoes Mount Erebus and Mount Terror (after the other expedition ship), and what is now known as the Ross Ice Shelf.

The Falklands feels it makes a contribution to the world’s research

And all this before the age of steam. No less a man than Roald Amundsen later wrote of the Ross Antarctic expedition that, “few people of the present day are capable of rightly appreciating this heroic deed, this brilliant proof of human courage and energy… These men were heroes – heroes in the highest sense of the word.” (In illustration of how right he was, and of the risks that were routinely taken by seagoing men, in 1845 Sir John Franklin – renowned Arctic explorer and former Governor of Van Dieman’s Land when Ross had passed through five years previously – took Erebus and Terror, now fitted out for steam, on yet another attempt to force the NorthWest Passage. All hands were lost – there were later suggestions of cannibalism – and in 1848 James Clark Ross set out to look for them, perhaps out of embarrassment at having declined command of the original expedition, perhaps because his best friend and second-in-command, Francis Crozier, had been the captain of the missing Terror.)

As well as the research ship, a seal, a gull, the largest ice shelf in Antarctica, the world’s most southerly sea, several islands (at both extremities), a mountain in the Desolation Islands, and even a crater on the Moon have all been subsequently named in Ross’s honour – not to mention the road which runs along the harbour’s edge the entire length of Stanley. (Crozier gets a cafe and a softplay centre.)

There is a long tradition of registering BAS ships and planes in the Falkland Islands, and the JCR is no exception. The BAS was formerly The Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (not entirely without political ramifications), and though based in Cambridge continues to have an office here in Stanley. And so the Falklands, per se, feels it makes a contribution to the world’s research in the time of climate change and indeed pandemic.

But now, at the end of the 2020/21 Antarctic season, after five and a half months of delivering scientific and operational staff to the various research stations of the British Antarctic Territory, and having said goodbye to the Antarctic proper some 10 days ago, the JCR had put in to her home port for the last time, refuelling before returning to the UK to be sold off. The journey north will take approximately six weeks.

The James Clark Ross will be replaced by the RSS Sir David Attenborough, “one of the most advanced polar research vessels in the world” (feat. Boaty McBoatface), currently doing test laps of the British Isles, but also already registered under the Falklands flag. She – a ‘he’, surely, if ever there was one? – will take up duties later on this year.

II – Endurance and the Great White Silence

In the face of catastrophe, Ponting’s images served as an important way of salvaging something from the national mortification

The Ross and Attenborough are links in and to a noble heritage. And, in one of those coincidences to which I am either addicted or merely somehow hopelessly prone, about five minutes after the mail regarding the JCR I also received my “latest news” from the Royal Geographical Society, informing me of a collaboration with the Marylebone-based Atlas Gallery on their exhibition “Endurance and the Great White Silence”. This brings together, for the first time, the genuinely iconic images of three pioneering polar photographers, which together constitute the mother- and fatherlodes of Antarctic photographic art, not least in platinum palladium prints by Belgian publishers Salto Ulbeek.

The first set are from Robert Falcon Scott’s British Antarctic Terra Nova Expedition (1910-13), Scott’s second to the still overwhelmingly unknown continent (as I never tire of pointing out to schoolkids, most of it is still not even included on world maps) in which he was not only pipped to the Pole by Amundsen, but died on the way back, with Oates et al., only (“…”) 11 miles from their next supply depot.

HERBERT G. PONTING: Capt Scott in den, 7 October 1911

These pictures, by the photographer Herbert G Ponting, were taken substantially in the (Southern Hemisphere) winter of 1911, at the Cape Evans base on Ross – ahem – Island, and include such now-familiar items as Scott in his makeshift study shed, writing his diary entry for Saturday 7 October 1911. My mother bought me a print of this from the RGS library a few years back, and it, in turn, is currently making its way down the Atlantic, having begun its journey last year in Sri Lanka.

In the face of the ensuing catastrophe (the “conquest” of the South Pole notwithstanding), Ponting’s images served as an important way of salvaging something from the national mortification. Tragedy aside, though, it is important to remember that the expedition accomplished a lot, including winter sledging trials on the continent, a lot of scientific sampling, much geographical surveying, and several immortal written and visual records.

CAPTAIN ROBERT FALCON SCOTT: Dr Edward Wilson sketching on the Beardmore Glacier, lunch camp, 13 December 1911

In the Book Club Associates copy of Scott’s diaries I have beside me, I notice that the painter of the expedition’s striking watercolours, Edward Wilson, was “Chief of the Scientific Staff, and Zoologist”; that Ponting is billed – entirely appropriately – as “F.R.G.S., Camera Artist”; that Lawrence E.G. “Titus” Oates is listed uninformatively as “Captain 6th Inniskilling Dragoons”; that the Ship’s Party included an “Assistant Paymaster, Secretary and Meteorologist” called Francis Drake; and that the “Ski Expert”, Tryggve Gran, was a sub-lieutenant in the Norwegian Navy. Apparently Gran’s diaries later revealed he felt some inner turmoil over Scott’s defeat to his fellow Norwegian, Amundsen. But then Gran also had the unjoyful honour of being the one who, eight months later, found Scott’s body. He skied his boss’s skis back to the finish line.

Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17, documented by Australian photographer Frank Hurley, upstaged the Scott disaster both in its failure to achieve its headline objective (never even making it onto the Antarctic mainland, in fact) and also in the utterly extraordinary survival – in fact, repeated survivals – of every one of its crew in nigh-inconceivable circumstances. One of that crew (ish), Perce Blackborow, snuck onboard in Buenos Aires as a stowaway. Talk about a roll of life’s dice. When Shackleton found him, Blackborow was warned that he’d be eaten first, if things got rough.

HERBERT G. PONTING: Captain Oates and some of the ponies (November 1910)

Many months later, Hurley and Shackleton took their lives in their hands, in both the short and long terms, by carrying away 200 glass negatives from the imploding Endurance. The survival of those plates is almost as absurd as the survival of the men who feature in them. At the height of my Ranulph Fiennes “phase”, an ex-girlfriend at university gave me a beautiful hardback of the resulting photographs, which remains a treasured item. Over Christmas I seriously considered bringing it with me to the Falkland Islands. But airline baggage limits soon put paid to that.

HERBERT G. PONTING: Grotto in Berg, Terra Nova in Distance, Taylor and Wright (interior), 5 January 1911

Shackleton family connections continue to the present day, however. Sir Ernest died, and was buried, in South Georgia in 1922 (at the time politically part of the Falkland Islands). His son, Edward, Baron Shackleton, chaired a report on the future of the Falklands under James Callaghan’s government (which stressed the importance of the patrol ship HMS Endurance, later to serve meaningfully in the 1982 conflict), and his Garter banner now hangs in Christ Church Cathedral, Stanley. Ernest’s granddaughter, Alexandra, a credentialled Antarctician in her own right, rechristened the Endurance early in life and for many years remained its patroness, and is a trustee of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. The family motto is (in Latin): “By Endurance we conquer.”

These pictures are, without a doubt, some of the greatest photography of the greatest landscapes ever taken

The last photographer, to my surprise, turns out to have been Robert Falcon Scott himself. Herbert Ponting returned to London in 1912 with the official Terra Nova photographs, but left the expedition camera (and some instruction) with Scott. The explorer proceeded to record much of his final trek to the South Pole (September-December 1911), sending the negatives back to base with his support crew. The images ended up in Ponting’s archive, nobody realising until quite recently that Scott had taken them.

There’s an obvious, grim significance to almost literally looking through his eyes at some of the last things Captain Scott ever saw. Likewise, Ponting’s photo of Oates (no pun) feeding the pack ponies. But amidst all that there are images of great beauty, hard work and comradeship, and even fun.

HERBERT G. PONTING: Beautiful, broken ice, reflections and Terra Nova, 7 January 1911

Ponting’s captions are straightforward to the point of irony. “Beautiful, broken ice, reflections and Terra Nova, 7 January 1911”; “Chris and the gramophone” (an end-of-the-earth take on the HMV logo); and “Grotto in Berg, Terra Nova in Distance, Taylor and Wright (interior), 5 January 1911”, for an image that might be too much for the cover of a Jules Verne novel. (Hurley, more of a journalist, has less-imaginative titles – although “Dawn after winter”, I’ll grant, is not half bad in terms of tidy evocation.)

HERBERT G. PONTING: Chris and the gramophone

Unbeknown to me, “Endurance and the Great White Silence” has been technically running since 8 of December; but the big-print IRL exhibition at the gallery has, of course, been shuttered by Covid restrictions. However, the virtual exhibition is online until 17 of April – free, albeit rather stingily uncomprehensive.

These pictures are, without a doubt, some of the greatest photography of the greatest landscapes ever taken, as well as being “the foundational images of Antarctica”, as one of the Salto Ulbeek co-editors has put it. My favourite, though, I think, must be the weirdly dapper portrait of Frank Wild – Shackleton’s “right-hand man”, buried beside him at Grytviken in South Georgia – looking for all the world like the prototypical Shoreditch hipster. I don’t have the better part of three grand (plus VAT) to spend on it. But maybe you do.

All photos have been used with the permission of Caterina Mestrovich at the Atlas Gallery.

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