Sunday Express, October 30, 2011

Heart Of The Great Alone exhibition, The Queen’s Gallery

NEARLY a century has elapsed since those two giants of the Heroic Age, Scott and Shackleton, were engaged in the extraordinary polar feats for which they would be immortalised. That their legends remain undimmed is as much down to the mesmerising photographs that emerged from their respective expeditions as the actions themselves.

To mark the centenary of Captain Robert Scott’s tragic Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole, a unique collection of the photographs presented to George V has been assembled for the first time in The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace.

As well as Scott closing in on his all-consuming goal, we see images from Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance trip of 1914-16, which all too soon became a survival mission of crucifying hardship.

I defy anyone not to be moved by At The South Pole, the picture of Scott and his four companions, physically and emotionally broken having been pipped to the post by Roald Amundsen.

Expedition photographer Herbert Ponting, who trained one of the men, Henry “Birdie” Bowers, to use a camera, called this among “the most tragically interesting photographs in existence”.

Among the most tragically interesting photographs in existence

Antarctic adventurer David Hempleman-Adams says in the audio commentary: “You know, looking at them, that they weren’t going to make it home.” Weeks later, all were dead.

The Endurance photographs, taken by Australian Frank Hurley, capture life aboard the ship and the spartan conditions shared by man and dog. However, it is the pictures of the Endurance being crushed by the advancing ice that have the most impact. Few images have so encapsulated the fragility of man juxtaposed with the menacing magnificence of nature.

The declining quality of the shots that follow mirrors the impossibly arduous, 1,100-mile escape to safety, achieved with just rowing boats, a five-string banjo and an unbreakable spirit. All survived.

Dotted among the images are some stirring artefacts, none more so than the wall-mounted Union Jack that dominates the final room of the exhibition. This, we learn through a commentary, is the very flag given to Scott by Queen Alexandra, planted by him at the South Pole and retrieved from his final icy resting place, just 11 miles from safety.

King George said to Ponting when he presented the images to the monarch that he wanted “every British child to see the pictures: the stories could not be known too widely among the youth of the nation.”

This inspiring new exhibition will certainly play its part.

* INFORMATION: The Heart Of The Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton & Antarctic Photography (020 7766 7301/www.royalcollection.org.uk) runs until April 15, 2012. Adult £7.50, child (under 17) £3.75.