Recently, our diners at LASSCO Three Pigeons have been enjoying their lunch under the watchful eye of Herbert Ponting. We salvaged this framed photograph, an almost life-size reproduction, when clearing the premises of a film archive in Islington some time ago.
Ponting (1870-1935) was the best known photographer of the heroic era of polar exploration and a pioneer of Antarctic photography – particularly challenging given the equipment of the day. Ponting went to the Antarctic with Captain Scott on the fateful “Terra Nova” Expedition of 1911-12. His glorious photographs, including an original plate of this self-portrait, are currently on exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until 15th April as well as at The Geographical Society in Kensington until the end of March (2012).
Ponting returned to New Zealand, as scheduled, whilst Scott and the Polar expedition were still out on the ice in their bid for the Pole (one could only get a ship in through the ice-pack to the Ross Island base in summer months – the sledging season). His was an important role. The sale of his photographs, were the means by which much of the trip would ultimately be financed.
At LASSCO Three Pigeons, alongside his self-portrait, we have for sale a hardback copy of Ponting’s 1921 account of the expedition “The Great White South – or – With Scott in the Antarctic”.
The tragic demise of Captain Scott and his Polar team is a well documented one. The words of Lawrence “Titus” Oates as he faced his own death are often quoted. This is the exact 100th anniversary of the day he uttered them (17th March 1912). Ponting’s account, summarised below, puts Oates’ words into the context of the brutal life of a Polar explorer. It even recalls a conversation he had had with Oates months previously – concerning what would be the correct course of action in the event of injury when out on the ice – a prophetic conversation indeed (pp288-9).
The march for the South Pole had departed Cape Evans, where the explorers had over-wintered, on 1st November 1911. With first some motor-sleds and later ponies being, respectively, abandoned and shot, the British exploration teams resorted to hauling their sledges by foot and ski across the frozen continent – always heading South. They had to haul everything they needed with them including all food, the fuel to cook it, tents, medical supplies and sleeping bags. They pushed themselves to haul the carefully calculated load for as far as they possibly could every day for five long months. Three other support teams helped them South across the Ross Ice Shelf, “The Barrier”, then up the Beardmore Glacier to the high plateau of the Antarctic interior. Each support team successively turned back – as planned (the last returning party nearly perished on the return). These teams helped to further supplement the depots of supplies that they had deposited along the route the previous sledging season, all in readiness for the returning Polar teams.
The Polar Team of five men, led by Captain Scott were left to make the final push to the South Pole with 200miles to go.
It was mid January 1912 that they reached their prized destination of 90 degrees south and the crushing discovery of Amundsen’s tent with the Norwegian flag still flying. The Norwegians had beaten them by 33 days. Scott and his utterly exhausted and demoralised team had the same eight hundred miles walk back to Cape Evans. Ponting had given them photography lessons – the three pictures they took at the South Pole are powerful images.
On a good day they could only ever cover about 10 miles. Each man was strapped into a harness to assist in hauling. It was strenuous work. Even on flat terrain the sledge would continuously get stuck in ice ridges, “sastrugi”. On mountainous “pressure-ridges” and rough terrain progress involved extreme physical stress – whether hauling, jerking, digging or pushing.
The conditions were awful. The temperature regularly dropped below minus 40 degrees and much of the journey had been made at altitude on the South Polar Plateau: around 3000m above sea level where the air is thin. Blizzard conditions arrived at any point and with increasing regularity. They only had a small green tent for shelter and a primus stove to cook on. Because it was the Antarctic summer, the sun didn’t set: adding to their exhaustion. The Edwardian clothes they had on – canvas, wool, fur and cotton – were frozen solid for the entire expedition without being changed.
The rations were a mixture of frozen old penguin meat and biscuits – occasionally supplemented with horse meat or dog meat. The penguin mix was their version of “Pemmican”; mixed as a soup with hot water to warm them it was known as “Hoosh”. There was not enough food to give them the energy they needed for the strenuous work of pulling a heavy sledge for five months. They were literally starving. The early effects of scurvy had badly effected some in the support teams and the symptoms of blinding head-aches and diarrhoea were never far away. The men were permanently thirsty because the only way to get a decent draught of water was to camp and melt snow on the stove. They were not equipped with snow-goggles and suffered excruciating periods of snow-blindness.
The team of five hauled their way 300miles back to the top of the fearsome Beardmore Glacier by the first week of February 1912. Laced with huge concealed crevasses the glacier represented a dangerous challenge. After two falls that exacerbated his worsening condition Petty Officer Edgar Evans died on 17th February at the end of the awful 100mile descent of the treacherous glacier. The descent brought the explorers to the Ross Ice Shelf – the last leg of their route home across the frozen sea to the Hut at Cape Evans on Ross Island.
By early March, exactly 100 years ago, they were over half-way home across “The Barrier” as they called the Ross Ice Shelf. All of them were fighting off the effects of frost-bite. In the words of Captain Scott’s diary: “The best I can hope for is amputation”.
As their pace slowed the five men who had now pulled the sledge for 1400 miles knew that their dwindling rations would not last to the next depot of supplies left at a marked spot called “One Ton Depot”. The weakening team only managed four or five miles a day now. Alone on the frozen continent they were still way too far from home for any hope of a rescue.
10th March 1912: “The weather conditions are awful” recorded Scott in his diary.
“Titus” Oates was struggling to make any progress at all. The frost bite in his feet prevented him from contributing to the pulling of the sledge. The punishing wind was continually dead ahead.
The diary records how the exhausted team ground to a stop with Oates unable to continue any further on 16th March. They were only 11miles from the depot. The weather worsened to blizzard conditions. The remaining Polar team members – Captain Robert Scott, Dr Edward Wilson and Lieutenant Henry Bowers witnessed Captain Lawrence Oates survive the night of 16th March 1912 but in the morning – with the immortal words “I am just going outside, I may be some time” – he left the tent. It was his 32nd birthday.
The storm continued unabated. The remaining three opted to make a break for it without the sledge but because of the howling storm, which was to continue for two weeks, they simply could not get under way and had to remain in their sleeping bags.
The last entry in Scott’s diary was on 29th March 1912: “For God’s sake look after our people”. The Antarctic winter closed in.
Amazingly, the world was unaware of Scott and his team’s demise until February 1913 – so remote and isolated were the surviving explorers at The Hut – as they sat-out another winter and gave up all hope of their leader returning. They ventured out onto The Barrier and found Scott’s tent in the Spring – eight months later.
Ponting received the news in Switzerland and was devastated. His book, of which we have a 1924 copy for sale, tells the story of the whole expedition – not just the polar march summarised above. He records his photographic adventures and the scientific achievements. He was keen to defend Scott. Scott was revered as an English hero for many years after his death but his reputation has suffered under critical scrutiny in the second half of the twentieth century.
Lately Scott’s reputation has made a remarkable come-back. More recent studies have concurred with Ponting and concluded that, in fairness, he was breaking new ground and learning polar survival techniques as he went and that he was very unlucky in a number of ways. Beyond anything else it was bad luck that led to the failure of getting his team back safely.
Herbert Ponting, “The Great White South – or – with Scott in the Antarctic” 1924, in hardback, is available at LASSCO Three Pigeons. The framed poster of Ponting is also for sale.
On display we also have a 1st Edition of Howard Marshall’s account of the expedition, “With Scott to the Pole” of 1923 that contains many of Ponting’s fabulous photographs. We also have the catalogue for the Queen’s Gallery exhibition mentioned above.
The Queen’s Gallery and Geographical Society exhibitions are essential viewing. Of the other accounts of the Terra Nova expedition Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s “The Worst Journey in the World” and Michael Smith’s “An Unsung Hero – Tom Crean, Antarctic Survivor” rank among the best.
16th March 2012
Captain Lawrence “Titus” Oates (17th March 1880 – 17th March 1912)