glass plates

University of Cambridge seeks cash to buy Captain Scott's Antarctic negatives

When Captain Scott ventured to the Antarctic on his ill-fated polar expedition in 1911, it wasn't just about racing Roald Amundsen to the South Pole. He was accompanied by a strong scientific team, and Herbert Ponting, the official expedition photographer. Ponting's images of the expedition are well-known, but he also tutored Captain Scott in the use of a camera and several other members of the team had cameras, too. The Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, which is a sub-department of the University, holds Herbert Ponting’s glass plate negatives and his presentation album from the same expedition, the prints and albums of all the other expedition members equipped with a camera, and the remaining prints of Scott's photographs in its archives. Together, they form the most comprehensive photographic record of the expedition held anywhere in the world.

What the Institute doesn't hold, however, are 113 'lost' negatives of Scott's images. These negatives record his early attempts at photography under Ponting's direction as well as those he took of the team on the Southern Journey. In order to secure the negatives for the archive, the University needs to raise a total of £275,000 before 25 March 2014, after which point they will be sold at auction.

Pony camp, Camp 15. Ponies (left to right) Snippetts, Nobby, Michael and Jimmy Pigg, Great Ice Barrier, 19 November 1911 “Ponies tethered on the ice beside a man-made ice wall. Sledges in background.” SPRI P2012/5/76

The university has already succeeded in raising £75,000, and is asking for donations to reach its £275,000 goal. Explorer Sir Ranulf Fiennes explains why the negatives are regarded as important for the archive: 'The negatives of Scott’s lost photographs are of major significance to the national heritage. Scott’s attainment of the South Pole and his subsequent death captured the public imagination on its discovery in 1913 and continues to exercise an extraordinary fascination. The negatives are a key component of the expedition’s material legacy as an object and as a collection in themselves.'

He speaks at greater length in this video:

Anyone able to make a donation can do so here.

Pictures from the ice


Whenever I think of Scott’s or Shackleton’s ill-fated Antarctic expeditions, I tend to be more preoccupied with Titus Oates being some time and 22 men being marooned on an island for four months. That both of these expeditions had official photographers who schlepped along tonnes of equipment, including whatever they needed to develop their images from glass plates, has sort of passed me by.

But Scott’s doomed Terra Nova expedition was accompanied by the first official polar expedition photographer, Herbert Ponting, and Frank Hurley was one of the 22 men stranded on Elephant Island when the Endurance was trapped and crushed by ice. Ponting was never meant to travel across the ice to the Pole and Hurley managed to salvage 120 plates, a pocket-sized camera and a few rolls of film before the Endurance was lost. So some, at least, of their pictures survive.

The night watchman spins a yarn, 1915, by Frank Hurley

Ponting presented his images to George V, whilst a selection of Hurley’s work was given to George V by Shackleton. And the Royal Collection will be exhibiting them from 21 October 2011 to 12 April 2012.

Ponting’s pictures consist of the wildlife and icebergs that they encountered as they sailed from New Zealand to Antarctica, as well as scenes of life on board ship and even shots of Scott’s last birthday dinner in 1911.

Hurley did what I can only think of as totally crazy things – like climb the rigging and spend three days out on the ice watching as the Endurance broke up – to get his photographs. As if going on a polar expedition isn’t dedication enough to the cause of photography. But he was, of course, rewarded with some wonderful pictures.

The Heart of the Great Alone will show at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, from Friday 21 October 2011 to 12 April 2012. Tickets for adults are £7.50, more details available from the Royal Collections website.

(Featured image: Grotto in an iceberg, 5 January 1911 by Herbert Ponting. Both images courtesy of The Royal Collection © 2011, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.)