Heart of the Great Alone

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Royal interest in polar exploration began with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who followed the fortunes of the early adventurers. The royal couple acquired photographs and written accounts of voyages from the 1840s and 1850s, many associated with search expeditions for Sir John Franklin and his crew, who failed to return from an 1845 expedition to navigate a trade route between Europe and Asia via Canada. Queen Victoria’s interest in polar exploration continued throughout her reign. For example, she was presented with a painting by the American artist and explorer William Bradford of his voyage to the Arctic in 1869 and a set of photographs of the expedition. Queen Victoria also received photographs from the British Arctic Expedition of 1875-6, which she had followed keenly.

The early twentieth century saw the ‘heroic age’ of Antarctic exploration when new discoveries were made in the name of the king and on behalf of the nation. King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra followed the progress of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s first expedition south on board Discovery (1901-4). On his return, Scott was invited to Balmoral to lecture about his experiences. He showed slides taken by the expedition’s chief engineer and principal photographer, Reginald Skelton, to a group that included the King and Queen and the Prince of Wales (later King George V). Scott later wrote to his mother that the King had asked so many questions that they had talked for three quarters of an hour longer than had been scheduled. Edward Shackleton’s expedition aboard Nimrod three years later also received royal support and he left England in 1907 carrying a Union Jack flag presented by Queen Alexandra. Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole was a source of national pride. When news broke of the explorer’s death in 1913, official messages of sympathy were sent to King George V. The expedition’s photographer, Herbert Ponting, delivered a lecture to King George and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace on 12 May, 1914, and the set of photographs now in the Royal Photograph Collection was probably presented at this time. King George V also took an interest in Shackleton’s career, meeting him on several occasions and receiving an album of images from the Endurance expedition of 1914-17.

In July 1921, Shackleton visited the King at Buckingham Palace ahead of his final expedition on board The Quest. Shackleton suffered a heart attack and died in South Georgia on 5 January 1922. An album of photographs documenting the Quest expedition, including Shackleton’s burial, is also in the Royal Photograph Collection. The Duke of Edinburgh continues the tradition of royal support of polar exploration today and HRH is one of the few members of the Royal Family to have crossed the Antarctic Circle. On 12 January, 1957, Prince Philip visited South Georgia, accompanied by Sir Raymond Priestley, a veteran of both the Nimrod and Terra Nova expeditions. HRH?also paid tribute to Edward Shackleton at a memorial cross. More recently, Prince Philip has been patron of a number of expeditions undertaken by the explorer David Hempleman-Adams, the first man to reach all four Geographic and Magnetic Poles, as well as climb the highest mountains on all seven continents. David Hempleman-Adams has expressed his gratitude for royal support: “When The Duke of Edinburgh agrees to be a patron he takes it very seriously. HRH always wants to know the objectives of the expedition and what makes my trip different to all the others. Following a successful trip he is the first to write and extend his congratulations. With this support I feel as if I am undertaking the expedition for my country and Queen. It is a wonderful feeling.” Continuing the royal connection David Hempleman-Adams has written the introduction and commentary for ‘The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography’ – a new title from The Royal Collection which presents the ill-fated expeditions of Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton through the eyes of their official photographers, Herbert Ponting and Frank Hurley. Ponting’s images capture Scott’s Terra Nova expedition of 1913,while Hurley’s work is from the Endurance expedition led by Shackleton in 1914-17. The unique sets of photographs were presented to King George V and are today part of the Royal Photograph Collection. Ponting’s images from Terra Nova were reproduced as a special edition of carbon prints for King George V and are among the most striking examples of his work. Hurley’s prints were given to the King in a ‘deluxe’ album and include astonishing views of Endurance trapped in the Antarctic ice. Alongside the commentary by David Hempleman-Adams, ‘The Heart of the Great Alone’ has essays on the two camera artists and the expeditions they documented, biographies of the crews and expedition chronologies. The illustrations include Antarctic material from the Royal Collection and newly commissioned maps. (Extract from Royalty Magazine Vol. 21/07)