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Salvaged: The extraordinary family album that turned wrecks into art

More than 200 stricken vessels were captured over a 125-year period off the Isles of Scilly, David Keys gazes in wonder at a unique maritime archive

The world's most important archive of original shipwreck photographs has been saved for the nation by the National Maritime Museum.

Virtually all 1700 mainly 19th and early 20th century glass plate negatives, conventional film  negatives and silver print positive photographs were taken  by successive generations of a family of photographers based on the Isles of Scilly.

From 1869 onwards, members of the family systematically recorded most of the great shipwreck disasters that occurred around the islands and off the coast of Cornwall.

Click here to see more images from the archive

But the archive is not simply important from a shipping perspective. For the family of photographers, the Gibsons, recorded much of the social history aspect of the disasters - the reactions of local people and survivors, the desperate rescue efforts, the digging of mass graves and the attempts at salvage. In total, over a period of 125 years, four generations of the family succeeded in photographing more than 200 wrecks, many of them just a few hours after vessels had hit rocks, collided with cliffs or run aground in horrendous weather and sea conditions. In order to obtain their images, they often had to trek across country or travel in small open boats in rough seas, while laden down with a portable darkroom, heavy equipment and large glass negative plates.

Not only did they take photographs, but they also gathered information which they used to write news reports for both local and national newspapers.

In the late 19th century, the Illustrated London News used to transform their photographs into engravings  which would then be published along with their news reportage.

In that sense the Gibsons were at the forefront of photo-journalism in an age before newspapers could actually print photographs.

The family's photography business, which was mostly involved in photographing weddings and other events rather than just shipwrecks, was established by John Gibson. Born in 1827, he was originally a merchant seaman, but by 1860 he had established himself as a professional photographer, initially based in Penzance, Cornwall.

From the 1870s, his two sons, Herbert and Alexander also became photographers in the firm. Alexander's son, James, then eventually became a key photographer in the business, as did his son Frank.

The founder of this photographic dynasty, John Gibson, took his first photograph of a wreck in  or shortly after 1869, the year that the Scilly Isles were connected by telegraph to the mainland.

It was courtesy of this relatively new technology that he was able to learn about wrecks in Cornwall and also send reports to newspapers in London and elsewhere.  Among the disasters the family recorded  were the wreck of the German steamer, Schiller, in 1876 when over 300 people lost their lives, the 1898 wreck of the Mohegan, a British  passenger steamer in which 106 died, the wreck of the Khyber in 1905 in which 23 perished - and the wreck in 1907 of the American seven-masted schooner the Thomas W. Lawson, one of the largest sailing vessels in the world,  in which most of the crew drowned.

Royal Museums Greenwich, of which the National Maritime Museum is a part, purchased the archive from  Gibsons of Scilly  photography at a Sotheby's auction in London on Tuesday for £122,500.

“This archive is one of the most important photographic collections we have acquired in recent years”, said Jeremy Michell, Curator of the National Maritime Museum's Historic Photographs Collection.

The National Maritime Museum will now conserve, digitize and study the photographs and will then use them to create a series of travelling exhibitions. At some stage there will also be an exhibition of the photographs at the National Maritime Museum itself.

“We're absolutely delighted that the archive has gone to such a good home. It was always important to the family to share these wonderful shipwreck images with the public,” said Sandra Gibson of the photography firm, Gibsons of Scilly.