independent

Thursday 18 January 2018

Wilson's South Pole notebooks fascinate

DAVID Medcalf

I HAVE JUST SPENT a couple of hours curled up with a remarkable book. 'Edward Wilson's Antarctic Notebooks' is a delight from start to finish. Compiled by brothers Dan and Chris Wilson on the adventures of their Uncle Ted, it offers an insight into a far-off part of the world that most of us will never visit.

Normally, this column is pre-occupied with matters Wexford. Wexford land, Wexford people or Wexford events. But Wexford is a long, long way from the icy wastes around the South Pole and Edward Wilson was an Englishman from Cheltenham. So what excuse can I drum up for turning the focus on this new work?

The principal connection is the involvement of Chris Wilson, retired wildlife ranger and a leading expert on the terns of the Saltee Islands. He has been a denizen of the South Slobs near Curracloe for the past twenty years. He must surely be close to achieving honary Wexford citizenship.

And Chris offers another local connection. Apparently, his uncle took a family holiday in Kerry during 1905 with his wife and parents. However, he left the party in the Kingdom to look up one Gerald Barrett Hamilton who was living near New Ross at the time. The pair spent their time at the Hamilton residence in Kilmanock House near New Ross working on their classic book on British mammals, of which Uncle Ted was the illustrator.

Never the-less, the fact is that Edward Adrian Wilson ( 18721912) spent much more time in the chill vastness of Antarctica, where he was a member of two expeditions, than he did in Ireland. He was one of the men who died on the ice along with their leader Captain Robert Falcon Scott on the way back to their ship after reaching the Pole. He was just 39 at the time.

The notebook shows how Edward Wilson - doctor, ornithologist and artist - succeeded in packing a great deal of experience into his four decades before perishing in a tent in the midst of a frozen desert. He left so many pictures that his nephews have spent years tracking them down, sorting them out and then publishing many of them. The latest book is a companion to 'Edward Wilson's Nature Notebooks', which appeared back in 2004.

The output included pencil drawings, cartoons and innumerable water colours. The subject matter ranged from diseases of the liver as witnessed in pathology classes as a student medic to the Mount Erebus volcano seen on his travels with Scott. He was prolific.

When out and about in the blinding glare of polar conditions, he had to grapple the difficulty of making sketches in conditions of unimaginable coldness. On one hike, temperatures dropped so low that the teeth began to crack in the heads of the explorers. Yet despite the difficulties, he succeeded in capturing the eerie essence of the landscape and its natural inhabitants. Many of the illustrations in the book are true 'Postcards from the Edge' of the world. They are both haunting and beautiful.

Yes, cameras did exist in the early years of the twentieth century and Wilson also dabbled in photography. However, the monochrome results could not match the images he captured roughly on paper and then later meticulously embellished with the proper colours. It is an art that has since been overtaken by Kodachrome but it was invaluable in its day, introducing the public and scientists back home to the full splendour of creatures such as Emperor penguins with their complicated life cycle and lazy looking fat seals.

Premature death helped to turn Captain Scott, Edward Wilson and their colleagues into posthumous celebrities back in the milder climate of their native country. Uncle Ted featured on tea caddies and cigarette cards.

To this day a fine bronze statue of the medic cum naturalist may be seen in Cheltenham. A school in the Battersea area of London remains named after him.

It is impossible to imagine anyone nowadays following a career path parallel to that of Edward Adrian Wilson. He was an accomplished surgeon, naturalist, painter and explorer. Before following the call to the southern seas, he specialised in the study of the grouse. He was rated one of the top ten ornithologists of his day. It is fitting that his legacy is explored in this intriguing volume...

Chris Wilson cannot resist just a little name dropping. He has let it be known that he is heading over to England shortly for the UK launch of 'Edward Wilson's Antarctic Notebooks' by none other than Lord David Attenborough. There's posh and prestige for you.

All royalties from the book, which is issued by Reardon Publishing, will be used to fund scholarships at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.

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