Pencil sketches by Edward Wilson, a member of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated group of explorers, reveal the devastating moments when the British team realised that the Norwegians had beaten them to the South Pole by less than a month. The Norwegian team, led by Roald Amundsen, had taken a different route and reached their destination on 14 December.
Left to King George V at the artist’s request, the sketches show the rival party’s flag fluttering victoriously in the breeze. The drawings have never been on public display before their inclusion in the Royal Collection’s exhibition, The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography, which opens at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace (21 October 2011 – 15 April 2012).
On one sheet, Wilson has sketched the Norwegian flag on 16 January 1912, when the British were still 13 miles from the Pole. The second depicts in stark monochrome the cairn built by the Norwegians on the same day. It also includes the flag, up close, two days later, when Scott’s men had arrived at the Pole. Recording the sight of the flag, Scott had written in his diary, ‘It was a black flag tied to a sledge bearer; near by the remains of a camp; sledge tracks and ski tracks going and coming and the clear trace of dogs’ paws – many dogs. This told us the whole story. The Norwegians have forestalled us and are first at the Pole.’
Although Amundsen’s team reached safety, the final members of Scott’s party perished in March 1912, 11 miles short of the food and fuel left at One Ton Depot. Later that year, a party set out discover the fate of the five missing men. Their tent was found on 12 November 1912, and the sketches, along with letters, negatives and flags, were retrieved before a cairn was constructed over the bodies of Wilson, Scott and Henry Bowers. Captain Lawrence Oates had already perished, as had Edgar Evans.
Wilson’s drawings were presented to King George V, as the artist had wished. They will appear with photographs taken during the ill-fated expedition in the Royal Collection’s latest exhibition, which marks the centenary of Scott’s legendary attempt to win the race to the Pole. The exhibition brings together a collection of the photographs presented to the King by the official photographers from Scott’s Terra Nova expedition of 1910–13 and Ernest Shackleton’s expedition on Endurance in 1914–16. It includes other unique artefacts, such as the flag given to Scott by Queen Alexandra (widow of King Edward VII) and taken to the Pole.