I only found out about this exhibition a couple of weeks ago, after reading an article in Londonist. Luckily I was in time to visit, though as it was the final weekend the display was pretty crowded. I braved the hordes anyway, as I am a bit obsessed by Antarctica and the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which this exhibition commemorates, is one of the most important and memorable expeditions in history. Enduring Eye: The Antarctic Legacy of Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Hurley marks the 100th anniversary of the conclusion of the expedition: it did not achieve its stated aims, but it is deservedly admired nevertheless.
The Royal Geographical Society has a collection of original glass plate and celluloid negatives created by Frank Hurley, the official photographer and cinematographer on the expedition. This collection has been ditigised as part of the centenary celebrations, and much of it is presented here.
The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was established by Ernest Shackleton, who aimed to be the first to cross Antarctica. On the ship Endurance, which left Britain on 1 August 1914, he and his crew headed south. After stops in Buenos Aires and South Georgia, the ship made it to the Weddell Sea, where it was trapped in the pack ice.
Despite the best efforts of the entire crew, and after several months of entrapment, the Endurance was eventually crushed by the ice and destroyed. What followed was one of the greatest feats in the history of Antarctic exploration. I’ve read a great deal about the expedition, I’ve seen more than one exhibition about it, but I never tire of hearing more. The crew sailed in the lifeboats to Elephant Island, from where Shackleton, Worsley and four others departed in one of the lifeboats, the James Caird, to fetch help. In a hugely impressive feat of navigation, they safely reached South Georgia, only to be faced with a further trek over mountains and glaciers to reach the whaling station on the other side.
A rescue ship finally arrived at Elephant Island on 30 August. Every single one of the men from the Endurance survived (the men on the other ship, the Aurora, which had the job of laying supplies for the expected trans-Antarctic party on the other side of the continent, did not fare so well, losing three of the ten men left on the ice over the winter). Some of the artefacts from the expedition survived, and are on display here, including the Union flag presented to Shackleton by King George V, a knife carved from a tent peg by ship’s carpenter Harry McNish, and sketches and notes made by Reginald James, one of the men marooned on Elephant Island.
The exhibition covers the history of the exhibition from the first departure of the Endurance, following everyday life on board the ship as the crew get used to their routine. As the ship became trapped in the pack ice, photographer Frank Hurley took the opportunity to take detailed shots of the ship and of the region, by all accounts completely dedicated to getting the perfect shot, even willing to risk his own life by climbing up to the top of the ship’s rigging to take pictures from up high. Hurley was able to develop the photographs despite the incredibly cold temperatures and less than perfect conditions, so it is extremely impressive that his pictures are as wonderful as they are. In particular, I love his shots of the ship Endurance, trapped in the ice; the famous night-time shot with the ship looming out of the dark, the rigging glowing in a ghostly manner, is a masterpiece by any standards.
When the decision was made to abandon ship, Hurley had to leave behind many of his beloved negatives, selecting only the best to take with him to Elephant Island. On the way he managed to take more photographs, capturing the dramatic journey as well as life on the island as the crew waited for Shackleton’s return.
Hurley’s pictures helped to popularise the expedition both immediately after it took place and well into the future. These pictures are magnificent: even a century later they still have incredible power. The achievements of Shackleton, leading the expedition, and Hurley, capturing it on film, are still awe inspiring today.
Statue of Shackleton on the side of the RGS building