Herbert Ponting’s Return to London

Herbert Ponting was the official photographer on Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated British Antarctic Expedition of 1911. Ponting’s photographic work on the trip is renowned as some of the finest early photography of the region, and was also a dramatic record of camp life. On his return Ponting collaborated with art dealers The Fine Art Society to exhibit and sell photographs from the expedition. This blue-toned carbon print was made for an exhibition at The Fine Art Society, London, from 1913-15. It shows a sublime view of an icy landscape at McMurdo Sound. Incredibly, the photograph was taken at midnight using the little sunlight available during Antarctic summer nights.

Prior to the expedition’s departure in 1910 its organisers agreed to hold an exhibition of Ponting’s resulting pictures with the Fine Art Society, an art gallery on Bond Street. When Ponting returned to England from Antarctica in late 1912, he immediately set about organising the exhibition which was eventually held in 1914. The intended purpose was to raise funds for repaying the expedition’s debt and to support Scott’s future expeditions. However, when news of Scott’s death reached England in 1913 the emphasis shifted, and Ponting’s exhibition became less of a triumphant celebration and more of a haunting memorial for the tragic, failed enterprise.

Nevertheless, Ponting and the Fine Art Society set about organising the exhibition, and all the prints made were unusually large for the period and beautifully executed. In the 100 years that have passed since, the British Antarctic Expedition has gone from a well-known British failure into a semi-mythical tale of British derring-do in the face of adversity. Ponting’s photographs have become increasingly sought-after as a result. While it is possible to occasionally find his Fine Art Society prints for sale, it is rare to find them in good condition – most have been treated poorly over the intervening years.

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