Cache of letters about Scott found as collection of his possessions acquired for the nation

Correspondence between Apsley Cherry-Garrard and mother reveals death of polar explorers was 'not a painful one'

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The Independent Culture

A century after Captain Scott’s fatal journey to the Antarctic a valuable collection of his personal possessions has been acquired for the nation, coinciding by chance with the discovery of a cache of letters written by Apsley Cherry-Garrard the youngest member of the Terra Nova expedition.

Cherry-Garrard, who was 24 when he set out on the Polar expedition in June 1910, was one of the 12-man search party to discover the bodies of Scott, Henry “Birdie” Bowers and Edward Adrian Wilson.

The 27 letters, between Cherry-Garrard and his mother, will be auctioned by Christie’s in October and are estimated to fetch up to £80,000.

Scott and his two companions are believed to have died in their tent around 29 March 1912; other members of the team, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans, having succumbed weeks earlier on the march back from the South Pole.

“We have found the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers, and all their records,"Cherry-Garrard wrote in a letter dated 20 November 1912.

"Their death was, I am quite sure, not a painful one – for men get callous after a period of great hardship – but the long fight before must have been most terrible.”

The correspondence, preserved by a family-member and was hitherto unknown to scholars, covers the whole span of the expedition from June 1910 to the sad return of the survivors to New Zealand in February 1913.

Cherry-Garrard, whose memoir The Worst Journey In the World has become a classic of polar literature, experienced a physical and mental break-down in the months following the loss of Scott’s polar party. He describes it in letters to his mother as “about the worst time I ever had…it has been absolute hell”.

The Arts Council England has reported that the acquisition for the nation of a collection of 35 medals, papers and sketches, an oil portrait of Scott and a sculptor’s model belonging to him collectively worth £378,700 has been made through the Acceptance in Lieu Scheme, by which taxpayers satisfy inheritance tax by offering objects of importance to the public.

The portrait is of particular interest as it is the only known oil of Scott painted from life. The large (151cm by 100cm), three-quarter length portrait by the American artist Daniel A Wehrschmidt shows Scott in naval uniform and wearing the Royal Geographical Society Gold Medal as well as the insignia of Commander of the Royal Victorian Order.

Responding the acquisition, explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes said: “Captain Scott was without a doubt the greatest polar explorer of all time – and possibly, since 1979, the most lied about in print.”

This is a sentiment that seems to have been shared by Cherry-Garrard who wrote in his letters complaining about the adverse press coverage surrounding the expedition, which he describes as “nothing less than a tissue of lies”.

Scott’s bid to reach the South Pole, which he and his team did on 17 January 1912, only to find that a Norwegian party led by Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it, has made him an historical hero with the publication of his diaries and Beryl Bainbridge’s imagined history “The Birthday Boys” cementing the story.

But it took 50 years for Scott to be elevated to the pantheon of British heroism amid the “hostile criticism” Cherry-Garrard’s letters chart.

Among the selection of papers and sketches is a letter from Victor Campbell telling Scott that the rival expedition under Amundsen had been sighted in Antarctica.

Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, said: “This year marks the 100th anniversary of the great explorer’s death, so it is very appropriate that this fascinating collection of materials relating to Scott has been obtained for the nation. These items are a wonderful addition to the rich and diverse collections that make our museums and galleries world leaders that attract visitors from all around the globe.”