May 17, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College


Herbert Ponting, The ramparts of Mount Erebus, 1911

The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography

The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace
21 October 2011 – 15 April 2012

I have to admit, I’d never heard of the Queen’s Gallery before my visit last week, and even if I had, it wouldn’t have sprung to mind as somewhere which would have such a thought-provoking and moving exhibition.

The Heart of the Great Alone is a collection of the work of photographers Herbert George Ponting and Frank Hurley, who accompanied Scott and Shackleton on their most famous Antarctic exhibitions aboard the Terra Nova and Endurance respectively between 1910 and 1916.

The photographic collection juxtaposes heartbreaking moments and awe- inspiring images in a complete chronicle of one of the biggest news stories in its day. A picture of Scott’s team at the South Pole minutes after discovering they had been beaten there by their Norwegian rivals almost had me in tears, the experience heightened by the audio commentary by modern explorer David Hempleman-Adams on his heroes and their simultaneous triumph and disappointment. Similarly, the sacrifice of Hurley in destroying all but 120 of his 500 glass plate negatives in order to carry them home over the ice after the destruction of the Endurance (by the ice itself) is a poignant reminder of the sacrifices and hardship photographers face to document the findings of the expeditions they join.

For viewers of David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet, this exhibition could be seen as the grandfather of the modern nature documentary. In amongst the lush panoramas of miles and miles of rippling ice fields there is a serious motivation behind Ponting and Hurley’s photos. In the early 20th century, photography was an important method of science communication, used to inspire morale and excitement for discovery in the nations that sent explorers out into the unknown. In the days before blogs and satellite phones, this was Scott and Shackleton’s way of telling the world what they were doing, the exciting new findings they were making and why the expedition wasn’t just a folly of the rich and bored. It is sadder still then to learn that while the world waited on tenterhooks to find out whether Scott would make it to the South Pole, the remaining members of the group had already perished in the inhospitable conditions of the Antarctic while returning to base camp, with diaries and undeveloped photographs their last message to the world.