Wednesday June 14, 2017

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It’s a watercolour painting of a small bird, which would be fairly unremarkable. Except when you consider where it was discovered.

Researchers at New Zealand’s Antarctic Heritage Trust uncovered the painting in a long-abandoned hut in Antarctica. It was dusted with mold and penguin poop. Now they’ve determined that it was painted by Dr. Edward Wilson, who was part of Captain Robert Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition.

Lizzie Meek is the artifact manager at New Zealand’s Antarctic Heritage Trust. She spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the discovery. Here is part of their conversation. 

Helen Mann:  Ms. Meek, will you describe this painting, 1899 Tree Creeper, for us?

Lizzie Meek: This is a very delicate little watercolour. It’s a painting of a specimen bird. Which was fairly common in Wilson’ time, to be painting specimens which were dead birds. And it’s quite neutral colours, just browns and reds and some very delicate lines.

“To open up a stack of papers that we had presumed was just a stack of blank papers and to find something so fresh and so delicate was an enormous surprise.”
– Lizze Meek 

HM: Tell us about this hut, where the painting was discovered.

LM: Well we found the bird [painting] at Cape Adare. Cape Adare is a very interesting spot on the Antarctic continent, that’s about 800 km away from New Zealand’s Scott Base. Which makes it quite remote in terms of getting humans back and forth there. But it’s the first bit of the Antarctic mainland that you might see as you’re heading south from New Zealand in a ship.

It’s also home to a very large  Adélie penguin colony, which is situated on the beach there at Cape Adare. It’s around [750,000] penguins that live there.

Cape Adare Hunt

The hut in Cape Adare, Antarctica where Dr. Edward Wilson’s water colour painting was found. (Antarctic Heritage Trust )

HM: I can imagine that the last thing one would expect to find there would be a painting. How did your team react when they first uncovered it.

LM: Oh, a huge surprise. So we had brought back, from Antarctica, around about 1,500 artifacts from the structure at Cape Adare. We brought them back to New Zealand for the purposes of conservation.  And for the most part we’re dealing with tools and clothing and equipment, and lots and lots of tins of food. And they’re all of a similarly degraded condition, given the harsh conditions  at Cape Adare. So to open up a stack of papers that we had presumed was just a stack of blank papers and to find something so fresh and so delicate was an enormous surprise.

HM: You mentioned the name Wilson. Who is Wilson and how did he come to paint this do you think?

LM: Edward Adrian Wilson was a very key member of Scott’s team. He was the lead medical doctor on the team. He was also a naturalist, a scientist himself. He had many, many years of observing and studying wildlife. Which was a particular passion of his. He was a British man from  Cheltenham. And he had been drawing for years, and years, and years. And he had also suffered from illness which had led him to convalesce in Europe, in Switzerland, which was at the time that this painting was made.

It was during that sort of stage of his life, convalescing from tuberculosis, that he decided that drawing dead specimens wasn’t what he wanted to do. He wanted to draw live birds and he started to pursue that as an interest. Which is one of the things that drew him to Scott’s attention. He was interested in having someone who could draw live penguins on the excursion. 

Edward Wilson

Dr. Edward Wilson accompanied Captain Robert Falcon Scott on an Antarctic expedition in 1911. (Canterbury Museum )

HM: Can you remind us what happened to Dr. Wilson and the rest of the Scott exhibition?

LM: Edward Wilson was one of the five people in the final push for the South Pole, along with [Robert Scott, Lawrence Oates, Henry Bowers and Seaman Edgar Evans].  They made it to the south pole, beaten by [Roald Amundsen],  much to their disappointment I think. And then on the return journey home they progressively got weaker and weaker and unfortunately all five of those people died. Bowers, Scott, and Wilson died together in their tent, just a few miles from the depot that had the fuel and food they needed to continue.

HM: What would you like to see happen to the painting now?

LM: Well under the terms of our government permit, all of the objects from Cape Adare head back to the hut. So we’ll be sending the painting back to Antarctica, which in a way is ideal storage conditions for it in the cold. 

Lizzie Meek

Lizzie Meek, the artifact manager at New Zealand’s Antarctic Heritage Trust. (Antarctic Heritage Trust)

HM: Does it bother you how few people will see it in the future?

LM: No and I don’t think that statement is really true. In real life, for sure, there are many things in the building that will have unlimited audience. But in the wider sense of understanding or viewing objects the documentary record of these objects is quite widely spread. It reaches a large audience. And so it’s just the nature of these sites that to keep their integrity you need to keep the items that belong to them rather than continually whittling away and whittling away because somebody decides something is special and should be moved somewhere else.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our interview with Lizzie Meek.