Ten Great British Polar Artists
The art collection at the Scott Polar Research Institute reflects a range of activity in the polar regions: from British voyages to the Arctic during the nineteenth-century, the Heroic Age of exploration in Antarctica, through to contemporary responses to this challenging environment.
Our modest collection features a variety of work by explorers, naval officers, scientists, keen amateurs, official artists, professional printmakers and draughtsmen. Our holdings are strong in watercolour and pencil sketches from expeditions and lithograph and engraved prints produced for official travel narratives, but we also have a growing collection of works in other mediums, such as charcoal, ink and oil, in addition to modern reproductions. Notable British artists represented in our collections include:
Naval officer, explorer, linguist and skilled watercolourist, Lyon was born at Chichester, Sussex, the son of a colonel in the army. He entered the navy in 1808. Lyon was at Malta in 1818 when Joseph Ritchie, secretary to the consul in Paris, arrived there on his way to Tripoli for a journey into the African interior. Captain Frederick Marryat, who was to accompany Ritchie, proved unable to do so, and Lyon volunteered to take his place. This optimistic expedition, which hoped to find the source of the River Niger and the fabled Timbuktu, turned out to be a disaster. Ill equipped and under-funded, its leader Ritchie died, and Lyon was lucky to return home alive.
During his travels in the Sahara he developed a genuine interest in the cultural customs of the communities he visited, a rare thing for a European officer of his time, and this is reflected in his sensitive sketches and depictions of native life. He wore Muslim dress and learned fluent Arabic, adopting the alias Said-ben-Abdallah. Returning to London, Lyon was fêted by socialites as the romantic returning-hero. His best-selling account of his travels was published in 1821, illustrated with his drawings.
Later that year, Lyon was promoted and given command of HMS Hecla, and under the leadership of William Edward Parry, they embarked on Parry’s second attempt to find the Northwest Passage. They spent two years in the Arctic and overwintered, with Lyon turning his skills to depicting the Inuit they encountered. He ate raw caribou and seal, he joined hunters on the ice, and he was tattooed using needle and sooty thread. Though the expedition achieved little, Lyon’s insights into tribal life deserve more attention.
On his return to England, Lyon was promoted to Captain and given command of HMS Griper in 1824. Facing severe weather conditions, and a ship not up to the job, Lyon returned to Britain after just five months. He found it impossible to get another command after this disappointing expedition. He went to Mexico, acting as commissioner of a silver mine there. He died at sea in 1832, returning from South America to Britain where he was hoping to seek medical advice for his declining eyesight, the result of an attack of opthalmia in Africa. It was a sad end to the life of a man whose keen eye distinguished his work. Lyon was an entertaining writer, as seen in the journals that survive from his journeys, and he is now chiefly remembered for his beautiful sketches – many of which were engraved by the London printmakers for sale and as illustrations in popular expedition narratives.
Born at Great Barton, near Bury St Edmunds, Adams became interested in natural history as a child. He qualified as a surgeon in 1847 and in August of that year became an assistant surgeon at the Royal Navy’s Haslar Hospital in Gosport. He later transferred to the Naval Hospital in Devonport and soon after volunteered to join James Clark Ross’s expedition to the Arctic in search of Sir John Franklin. Adams was assistant surgeon aboard HMS Investigator under Edward Joseph Bird. They left England in May 1848, but returned eighteen months later without finding any trace of the missing men.
In January 1850 Adams joined another voyage in search of the Franklin party, aboard HMS Enterprise under Richard Collinson. They reached Bering Strait in August and Adams put ashore near the Yukon delta, to investigate reports of possible survivors. He rejoined Enterprise in July 1851, sailing east below Victoria Island, moving further eastward than any previous ship. Adams returned to England in 1855, where he continued to work both on his watercolours and his medical studies. He passed the full naval surgeon’s exams and travelled to West Africa in May 1856 on board the steamship Hecla. He died there of typhus and was buried at Sierra Leone.
The son of a Scottish minister, John Ross joined the Royal Navy as a nine-year old apprentice. He served in the Mediterranean and Channel Stations, and also made three voyages to the West Indies and three to the Baltic. In 1794, he entered the service of the East India Company, and in 1799 returned to the navy as midshipman of the Weasel in the North Sea. On the renewal of the war in 1803 Ross joined the Grampus, bearing the flag of Sir James Saumarez. In 1805, while serving as lieutenant of the Surinam, he was severely wounded cutting out a Spanish vessel under the batteries of Bilbao. In 1808 he acted as a captain of the Swedish Navy and was rewarded with promotion to commander in 1812. In 1814 he commanded the sloop Actaeon in the North Sea and for a short time in the White Sea, where he surveyed the coast and determined the longitude of Archangel by observing the eclipse of Jupiter’s satellites.
Ross’s first major Arctic voyage however, was a public disaster. He sailed from London in 1818, and though he proved the existence of Baffin Bay, made first contact with the Inuit of northern Greenland, and returned home with a variety of scientific observations, the Admiralty were not satisfied with his conduct. Through a notorious misjudgement that would shape his future career, he had failed to make any further progress westwards, rejecting the promise of the Northwest Passage much to the protest of his officers. He became embroiled in a controversy of pamphlets and recrimination, and he did not command a naval ship again.
In 1829, with the support of a wealthy patron, he left once more for the Arctic in the steam-ship Victory, on an expedition that was to become an epic ordeal. He was four winters caught in the ice, discovered the North Magnetic Pole, abandoned ship, and made a miraculous return to England in 1833, saved by his old ship the whaler Isabella. He returned to London as the lion of the season – applauded at gala functions, knighted by the King, and decorated with foreign orders. Illustrated with engravings loosely based on his paintings, his official narrative became a bestseller, whilst news of his exploits circulated rapidly in the press. Songs were composed celebrating his endeavours, plays were mounted, with other lavish spectacles erected in his honour. Through showmanship and speculation, his small sketches provided the inspiration for a vast Leicester Square panorama and a huge outdoor extravaganza at Vauxhall Gardens.
Back entered the navy as midshipman of HMS Arethusa in 1808 and immediately saw action off northern Spain. He was taken prisoner by the French at Deba, and while a prisoner at Verdun he studied French and drawing. In the winter of 1813-14 he travelled on foot through France and managed to escape to England. He served against the French again in HMS Akbar, dismasted in a hurricane off Cape Hatteras, and later as mate of HMS Bulwark after the end of the war.
In 1818 Back volunteered for service aboard HMS Trent, under John Franklin and also joined him on his expedition by land to the Coppermine River. It was largely owing to native help and Back’s determination that the party survived severe privations. On returning to England in 1821 he was promoted to lieutenant. He joined Franklin again on his overland expedition to the Mackenzie River, 1825-26 and in a subsequent search expedition for Captain John Ross and his missing party in 1833, whose aim changed once Ross has returned to England, and he continued to explore vast swathes of northern Canada including the discovery of the Great Fish (now Back) River. He returned to England to a hero’s welcome, was promoted to Captain and given command of HMS Terror for another foray into the ice in 1836.
Few officers endured more hardships in the Arctic than Back, and his exertions had taken their toll. For six years after his return he was more or less an invalid, and he never sailed again. He continued to take an active interest in Arctic exploration, and served as a vice-present and council member of the Royal Geographical Society. To his critics, he was overly ambitious, sly, quarrelsome, and something of a dandyish womaniser, but his unquestionable intelligence and bravery ensured him many admirers. His paintings, sketches and drawings from a long career in the Arctic were frequently engraved for sale and to illustrate his published narratives.
Author, artist, explorer and pioneering medical officer, Edward Moss has only recently become the focus of academic attention. His account of the British Arctic Expedition of 1875-76, under George Nares, published as Shores of the Polar Sea, is well known to historians, but little else about his short life has been examined. Born in 1843, he was educated at the Royal College of Science in Dublin and studied medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons. He graduated MD from St Andrew’s in 1862. In 1864, he became a surgeon with the Royal Navy. After being posted in British Columbia, Moss played a central role in founding one of the earliest medical institutions on Canada’s west coast, the Royal Naval Hospital at Esquimalt on Vancouver Island.
Moss was appointed surgeon and artist to HMS Alert in 1875. Although the expedition, as is well known, returned to England having failed to reach the North Pole - with both ship’s crews suffering from scurvy – its heroics were celebrated by the British public. His sketches and watercolours were reproduced as engravings in the press, and were also transformed into slides for magic-lantern lectures. Sixteen vivid chromo-lithographs were created and published by Marcus Ward in 1878. Moss tragically died at the age of thirty-seven, in 1880, when the training frigate HMS Atalanta disappeared with the loss of all hands, en route from Bermuda to Falmouth.
May served as mate in HMS Resolute under Horatio Thomas Austin in 1850-51 on a voyage in search of Sir John Franklin, reaching Beechey Island before being beset in the ice of Barrow Strait. May joined a series of man-hauled sledge forays from the ship, to the south and west of winter quarters. The ships were released from the grip of the ice in August 1851, and returned to England. May also served as first lieutenant of HMS Assistance in Sir Edward Belcher’s five-ship squadron, exploring Wellington Channel and Devon Island. Unable to escape through the ice the following year the ships were abandoned, and the crews limped home on the remaining vessel. Though Belcher was heavily criticised for this disastrous expedition, he was acquitted at court-martial. Nevertheless, a series of May’s sketches were engraved as fourteen coloured lithographs, which sold well in London during 1855.
Ashore, May continued to paint and was inspired by Leopold McClintock’s celebrated voyage on Fox, for example, to create a number of oil paintings and watercolours. He retired as a captain in 1869. Among many projects, he produced a series of sketches of British shipping and river craft and also assisted in transforming the photographs from the Arctic voyages of Benjamin Leigh Smith into engravings for use in the newspapers.
Born in Cheltenham, the second son of a local physician, Wilson came to Cambridge as an undergraduate reading Natural Sciences. His college rooms were reported to be littered with drawings and the bones and skulls of numerous birds. Self-taught, his sketching nevertheless developed well, aligned with his passion for ornithology. Wilson was assistant surgeon, artist and vertebrate zoologist on Captain Scott’s Discovery expedition, 1901-04, and his remarkable drawings and paintings of the Antarctic landscape are without equal. A deeply religious man, his sympathetic character and genuine care for his shipmates made him one of the most admired on the voyage.
On the return of Discovery, an exhibition of Wilson’s pictures was held at the Bruton Gallery, London. Wilson was one of the first men to ‘convey an accurate idea of the beauty and subtlety of Antarctic colours. Often these records were as precise as photography and much more pleasing’. Among the throng of viewers was Sir Joseph Hooker, then aged 88, who as a young naturalist had accompanied Sir James Clark Ross to Antarctica over 60 years before. ‘I made an effort to see the Antarctic sketches’, he remarked, ‘they are marvellous in number, interest and execution. No naval expedition ever did the like. The heads and bodies of the birds by Dr Wilson are the perfection of ornithological drawing and colouring. They are absolutely alive’.
He was for some time appointed Field Observer to the Grouse Disease Inquiry and illustrated wildlife books. In 1910 he returned to the Antarctic with Captain Scott, joining Terra Nova as expeditionary artist, zoologist and Chief of the Scientific Staff. Wilson was an automatic choice as a member of the final South Pole party and he died alongside Scott on the return journey in 1912. At the last, Scott wrote of him: ‘He died, as he lived, a brave, true man – the best of comrades and staunchest of friends’. In the years that followed, a great number of Wilson’s watercolours and sketches were given to the newly-established Scott Polar Research Institute, where they now form a suitable tribute to his artistic legacy.
The official artist on Shackleton’s Nimrod and Endurance voyages, Marston was also a gifted author, singer and amateur actor. On the latter expedition he was ‘in charge of the clothing and general equipment’, which included the sledges and the huts. From his days as a student at the Regent Street Polytechnic, he was a good friend of Shackleton’s sister Kathleen. ‘Mind you do your own style of work’, she wrote before he departed for the south. ‘Don’t mind Ernest. He knows nothing about Art’.
Marston was known to the crew as ‘Putty’, for his mobile facial features. Raymond Priestley, a shipmate on the Nimrod, described Marston as having the ‘frame and face of a prize-fighter and the disposition of a fallen angel’. He was certainly very tough, but also had a sensitive soul that endeared him to others. Shackleton was keen to recruit Marston again and the artist was one of the first people he signed up, being promised a salary of £350 per year. Marston is perhaps best remembered for surrendering his beloved oil paints to help caulk the seams of the James Caird to make it watertight, shortly before its epic 800-mile open sea voyage in search of rescue.
In later life Marston went on to work very hard in the cause of handicrafts and rural industries in Hampshire. Marston lost most of his pictures when Endurance sank beneath the ice, but brought back many sketches from Elephant Island, which he later worked up. Though a fire in his home destroyed much of his work, a number of his paintings survive in our collections.
Painter, draughtsman, printmaker and teacher, Smith was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk to a fishing family. During the war years, 1940-45, he served in the Royal Air Force sketching on bombing raids over Germany. A group of his wartime pictures later toured the UK in aid of a forces charity. After the war Smith studied at the Slade School of Art, winning the Abbey Major Rome Scholarship to the British School, Rome in 1949.
In a distinguished career, he had over 60 solo shows in both the UK and abroad, including mixed exhibitions at the Royal Academy, London Group, and the New Art Centre. For 14 years, from 1965, he was senior lecturer in fine art at Chelsea School of Art and in retirement was a much-loved teacher of etching at the Camden Arts Centre.
Smith was given leave to take up the position of Official Artist on board the British Antarctic Survey’s annual relief voyage in 1975. The Survey invited him back for a much longer voyage in 1979-80, on his retirement from Chelsea. In 1982-84 he was invited by Trinity House to record the lighthouses of England and Wales. Reproductions of his extensive series of oil paintings and eclectic experimental works in watercolour beautifully illustrated Richard Woodman's book View from the Sea and Gordon Elliott Fogg's The Discovery of Antarctica. Of his work, one review declared: ‘Some are lovely, some magical, some garish: all are interesting and evocative of Antarctica in its range of moods’.
Many corporate, private and public collections hold examples of Smith’s work, including HRH Duke of Edinburgh, British Antarctic Survey, Barclays Bank, Lincoln Museum, and Sheffield Museum among many others. In the last decade of his life Smith was honoured with prestigious exhibitions in Japan. He was delighted with the recognition the country’s master printmakers afforded him.
Sir Wally Herbert was an explorer of international distinction. During the course of his polar career (which spanned more than fifty years), Herbert spent over fifteen years in the wilderness regions of the polar world, and travelled with dog teams and open boats well over 25,000 miles - more than half of that distance through unexplored areas that no human being had set foot on before.
In the Antarctic in the late 1950s and early 60s, Herbert mapped some 46,000 square miles of new country. He also sledged several thousands of miles with some of the finest long-range hunters of the world’s most northerly Inuit tribe (and lived with them for over two years with his own young family in the 1970s). His intuitive feeling for the polar world and its people is well reflected in his drawing and painting, skills he developed as a cartographer, and which he enjoyed in later life.
Herbert earned his own place in polar history with his epic 3,800-mile trek, the first surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean, which many polar historians agree to have been ‘the last great journey on Earth’. That sixteen-month journey (1968-69) from Alaska to Spitsbergen via the Pole of Inaccessibility and the Geographic North Pole was hailed by Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, as ‘a feat of endurance and courage which ranks with any in polar history’, and an achievement, in the opinion of H.R.H. Prince Philip, ‘which ranks among the greatest triumphs of human skill and endurance’. Herbert was knighted on the last day of the old Millennium as one of the ‘icons’ of the twentieth century. Herbert was also a prize-winning author with nine books to his credit, and a gifted artist who had shows in London, Sydney and New York. Royals, collectors and private investors own his original artworks. SPRI houses a special collection of prints of some of his finest paintings, which has been shown recently as a touring exhibition across the United Kingdom.