Art of the Antarctic

The works of a painter who joined Captain Scott's fateful voyage to the South Pole are to go on sale
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The Independent Culture

From his position below decks amid the deafening thrum of the ship's engine, Edward Archibald McKenzie had a unique viewpoint on one of the 20th century's most compelling adventure stories.

He had lied about his age to join the Royal Navy nearly a decade previously and the lead stoker of the Terra Nova was just 22 when he set sail for the Antarctic under the command of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. In order to join the mission, whose goal was to bag the South Pole on behalf of His Majesty King George V, the young Londoner had to beat about 8,000 other volunteers all anxious for a taste of glory.

And in the end he joined a crew of 65 men for the perilous journey on the dangerously overloaded whaler alongside 19 Manchurian ponies, 33 dogs and three motor sledges.

The tragic failure of the central goal of the mission, which saw Scott and his four companions not only beaten to the Pole by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen by 33 days but also go on to perish of hunger and cold as they tried to make their way back to the safety of the ship, has become one of the most analysed chapters in the golden age of polar exploration.

The emergence of a unique archive of material gathered by Mr McKenzie and lovingly maintained through the rest of his life until his death aged 84 in 1972 offers a unique perspective on the extraordinary era. Unearthed in his granddaughter's attic in Somercotes, Derbyshire, were two watercolour paintings, photographs and a 20-page journal telling the whole story from its hopeful beginnings in 1910 to the realisation of tragedy and failure three years later in McMurdo Sound. They will be sold at auction next week among 30 lots which could fetch up to £30,000.

The journal with its meticulous and at times mundane descriptions of ship life is illustrated by photographs taken by the pioneering arctic photographer HG Ponting and includes a signed and dedicated copy of his book The Great White South.

Included among the artifacts is a silver cruet set, embossed with the stamp of the British Antarctic Expedition, and a silver-plated pint jug, given to Mr McKenzie by Scott's widow and which the seaman later used to illustrate his lectures on the voyage.

But it is the diaries which will attract most interest. Among observations about shooting and skinning sea birds, one note in his immaculately neat handwriting describes the moment in 1911 when the expedition realised that Amundsen was ahead of them. It reads: "Feb 4th. Soon after 4am we rounded the bay of whales and to our surprise we found the Norwegian Expedition ship Fram and we made fast to the ice just ahead of her being then 3 yards further south than the Fram."

Although logged in straightforward terms the discovery was devastating for Scott who chose to carry on as if nothing had happened. For Mr McKenzie and other members of the crew, it was something of a minor miracle that they had managed to make it to Antarctica at all. Terra Nova was already 25 years old when it set sail and it leaked both above and below the waterline so that the men were constantly engaged in manning the bilge pumps to stay afloat.

A storm at 52 degrees South sent tons of coal and other vital supplies, including one of the dogs, overboard. The fires in the engine room were drenched and coal dust was washed into the bilges where it formed a thick slurry clogging the pumps – a situation made considerably worse because of an open hatch. Even under normal conditions the ship was notoriously hard work – its engines consuming one ton of coal for every six miles steamed. But Mr McKenzie never complained in his diary, preferring to capture the incredible experience on paper as it unfolded.

In 1913 Terra Nova returned to McMurdo Sound hoping to collect the victorious heroes. The stoker described the hammer-blow moment when news of the "Southern Party's" deaths was relayed. He wrote: "Jan 18th. Ship enters McMurdo Sound arriving off Cape Evans at 2pm. Cheese was exchanged between ships and shore parties. Commander Evans hailed Lieut Campbell and asked if all was well, we were completely horrified to hear in answer that the Southern Party consisting of Capt Scott, Capt Oates, Dr Wilson, and Lieut Bowers also Petty Officer Evans had been lost on their return from the pole (Campbell and party had returned from the hut after spending a terrible winter.)"

After returning from the voyage, Mr McKenzie married the girl he had been courting through a series of touching letters written during his three years in the southern hemisphere. His granddaughter Jackie Church, 47, recalled yesterday: "I grew up listening to granddad's adventures in the Antarctic and you take things for granted when you are a kid. It goes in one ear and out of the other. It is only when you are older that you realise what he has achieved.

"He was a very strong and powerful man. He used to tell us about how cold it was – he said it was like being in a freezer only 10 times worse. And he used to tell us about the food they ate, things like whale blubber. They had to experiment. I suppose they were the Heston Blumenthal of their day."

On his return Mr McKenzie served in the Royal Navy in the First World War and later joined the Metropolitan Police's Thames River Force. His granddaughter said: "When he came back the crew were all told that they could take up any profession that they wanted and he chose the police. Throughout the journey he had been writing to my nan these really quite romantic letters in which you see a completely different side to him. But because he had this tendency to go on these adventures my grandmother's parents said he should have a more regular and staid job. That was why he joined the police."

In the years that followed the former seaman created a 10ft scale working model of Terra Nova which has been on show in the Science Museum in London for 70 years and which was deployed in the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic starring John Mills. He was also a keen instrumentalist and sculptor, creating a life-size penguin which he stationed in the garden of his retirement bungalow annex on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, where it faced due south. Ms Church said: "He was very proud of what he did and always said he would do it all over again given the chance. I hope that by selling these items I can help bring the story of his adventure to a new generation."

Alan Judd, from Bamfords auction house in Derby, which is holding the sale, said the collection was a treasure trove for any collector. "He has a great way with words which is not something you necessarily expect from a stoker at that time. He was only 5ft 8in but everyone says he was a giant of a man and that was because of his incredible character which comes across as absolutely enormous," he said.


Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618)

Writer, soldier, explorer and courtier, Raleigh was instrumental in the early colonisation of Virginia and helped bequeath Europe tobacco. He also considered himself a poet who resisted the ornamentation of the Italian Renaissance – his work has been compared to that of John Donne and Edmund Spenser.

William Hodges (1744-1797)

Hodges joined James Cook's second voyage to the Pacific Ocean, where he captured exotic scenes from places such as Easter Island and Tahiti. His sketches were later used to illustrate the first published editions of Cook's journals from the voyage. Hodges produced portrait drawings of Pacific islanders and scenes from the voyage, receiving a salary from the Admiralty for his efforts. He went on to produce many highly valuable oil paintings of his adventures.

Thomas Baines (1820-1875)

This English painter and explorer served as an official war artist in South Africa before going on to travel widely in British colonial southern Africa, including a journey to the Zambezi Falls. In Australia he joined Augustus Gregory's expedition, lending his name to a mountain and a river and becoming one of the first European artists to paint the Australian aborigines.

Conrad Martens (1801-1878)

Abandoned a career in business to follow his two brothers into the art world. He met Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle, in 1833 and was recruited to replace the ship's stricken artist. On the Beagle's second voyage he became a friend of Charles Darwin, before going on to become a successful painter in Australia, where many of his pictures were based on his travels through the interior.

Alan Bean (1932-present)

Became the fourth person to walk on the moon in November 1969, and continued to serve with Nasa until 1981. Then, inspired by his unique experiences, he began painting. His work has proved particularly popular with other astronauts but also with space enthusiasts. He is the only artist to incorporate moon dust into his paintings.