Magazine article The Spectator

'Explorers' Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery and Adventure', by Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Explorers' Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery and Adventure', by Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert - Review

Article excerpt

All alone on page 313 of this spectacular book, a tattered but heroic flag flies in a painting of an icy wasteland. It is a remarkable picture for two reasons: first, because it was done by the Arctic explorer Edmund Wilson in 1912, when he and Captain Scott learnt from that very flag that the Norwegian Amundsen had reached the South Pole before them; and second, because it is a hauntingly beautiful work of art.

For this collection of paintings, drawings, notebooks and diary pages of travelling action by men and women down the centuries astonishingly illustrates how talented they often were -- not just in reaching (or not reaching) the South Pole, or exploring wastelands, or climbing frightful mountains, or identifying new insects and hitherto unsuspected varieties of humans, but in recording their emotions in doing so. It was not just a historical event that Wilson was commemorating that day in 1912, but a moment of tragic disappointment, and he perpetuated it in high art.

Like almost all of them, he was not a professional artist, but perhaps the intensity of the experiences these adventurers went through brought out the muse in them. Of course the scientists, botanists and zoologists among them were often trained to draw, like naval officers of the day, but many more, it seems, simply pictured what they saw and did out of dedicated fascination. Astonishment, humour, pity and a plain sense of history constantly enter their notes and diaries, and make this collection of their mementoes wonderfully rewarding.

How beautifully did many of them commemorate, in particular, the living world they were discovering: elegant, strange fish, complex crabs, gorgeous plants, endearing frogs, improbable crocodiles and a speckle-headed goose! Here, in 1705, Maria Merian introduces us to a toad carrying a host of hatchlings on its back; and here, in 1878, Marianne North portrays an Indian courtyard full of hunting cheetahs and lynxes, each with its own keeper. Some of their scholarly illustrations are exquisite -- rows of beetles or butterflies or unknown reptiles, an Audubon parakeet, a falcon from an Egyptian tomb (meticulously copied, in brilliant colour, by Howard Carter himself) or a white rhino from the notebook of John Hanning Speke, the Nile explorer.

Inevitably, I suppose, it is vistas that most often inspired them. …

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