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Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition photo album to auction at Bonhams

By
2020-02-19

A rare photograph album from Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 – 1917 is heading for auction at Bonhams in London next week.

The album features the work of Australian photographer Frank Hurley, who documented the expedition and the brutal conditions endured by the crew.

Just six copies of the presentation album, entitled ‘Photographs of Scenes and Incidents in Connection with the Happenings to the Weddell Sea Party’, were previously known to exist.

The newly-discovered seventh copy now offered at Bonhams is expected to sell for £30,000 – £40,000 ($39,000 – $52,000).

Shackleton’s expedition was an attempt to make the first land crossing of Antarctica, but as soon as his ship The Endurance set sail from Buenos Ares in October 1914 it struggled to manoeuvre through the ice.

Photographer Frank Hurley captured remarkable scenes throughout the ill-fated expedition (Image: Bonhams)
Photographer Frank Hurley captured remarkable scenes throughout the ill-fated expedition (Image: Bonhams)

Shackleton later commented “I had been prepared for evil conditions in the Weddell Sea, but had hoped that the pack would be loose. What we were encountering was fairly dense pack of a very obstinate character.”

By mid-January the ice pack had turned from obstinate to downright hostile, and the Endurance became stuck fast.

Despite attempts to dig a passage through using ice picks and chisels, Shackleton realized they may have to wait for the

The expedition spent nine long months trapped in the ice pack as it drifted through the ocean, slowly crushing the wooden vessel as it went.  

Frank Hurley captured scenes of life aboard the ship, and the remarkable landscape they found themselves stranded in.

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition crew aboard the stranded Endurance (Image: Bonhams)
The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition crew aboard the stranded Endurance (Image: Bonhams)

The crew attempted to keep up morale by racing their pack dogs on the ice and staging theatrical performances, as they waited for a chance to break free and continue on their journey.

But that chance never came, and the Endurance succumbed to the intense pressure in October 1915, as the wooden hull cracked and splintered with a sound like “heavy fireworks and the blasting of guns”.

Shackleton ordered the evacuation, and Hurley spent the next three days out on the ice with his camera, determined to capture the ship’s final moments as it disintegrated and sank.

The crew were then forced to make camp on a moving ice floe, and survived for months before it began to break up and they fled in lifeboats to the uninhabited Elephant Island.

The Endurance was finally crushed by the intense pressure of the ice pack in October 1915 (Image: Bonhams)
The Endurance was finally crushed by the intense pressure of the ice pack in October 1915 (Image: Bonhams)

Having taken more than 500 images throughout the expedition, Hurley then had to choose just 120 photographic plates and smash the rest, in order to reduce the weight the crew would have to carry.

The crew were finally rescued and returned to civilisation without loss of life in January 1917.

Although it failed in its goal, today the expedition is remembered as an incredible feat of endurance and the last major expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

“The fate of Endurance and the crew’s astonishing and tortuous journey back against all the odds is rightly seen as a testament to the human spirit under extreme pressure,” said Matthew Haley, Bonhams’ Head of Books, Manuscripts and Photographs.

“Hurley’s images convey the terrible situation in which the men found themselves, and have come to define the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration as it drew to a close.”

The Bonhams Travel and Exploration Sale takes place in London on Wednesday February 26.


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