The Polar World: The Unique Vision of Sir Wally Herbert
Weybridge, Surrey: Polarworld. £35
Reviewed by Russell A. Potter
The past centuries have seen all manner of testimony to the sublime grandeur of the earth’s polar regions, both written and visual. In books, newspapers, panoramas, lantern shows, and eventually in film, numerous writers and artists have sought to convey the strangeness, the beauty, and the terror of the most extreme regions of the planet. Occasionally, as with Fredrick Beechey, a remarkable explorer has been a reasonably capable artist; at other times, as with Frederic Edwin Church or William Bradford, a sublime artist has briefly wetted his toes in the polar seas, and glimpsed a few icebergs for himself. Yet, as this book reveals, only once has one of the true greats of polar exploration revealed himself to be just as brilliant a visual artist as he was a far-faring and resolute explorer.
The reader of this stunning new book will want an armchair – not to recline in, but to support this panoramic tome, one in which each turn of the page will take their breath away anew. The first step is simply to gaze in wonder: the palettes, the chromatic lucidity, the richly detailed sweep of the land that leaps out from every image. The ice, stone, and drifting snows of the frozen zone as shown here possess a kind of extraordinary realism which is at the same time a form of impressionism. It is not that any one detail is exaggerated; far from it, but that all are present in a way in which, when one takes a photograph, are often absent in the result. Like those who trek the cliff-sides of Yosemite vainly trying to replicate an Ansel Adams photograph, a latter-day artist could troll the globe from pole to pole without ever capturing images such as these; they are as marked with the moment as by the man.
In-between these striking images – and space is often at a premium – Sir Wally tells his own story with effective, generally spare prose. It is the prose of a man who knows enough of the rigors of polar travel that he sees the other greats of history, from Nansen to Amundsen to Shackleton, more as fellow-travelers than as rivals. Indeed, portraits of many of these men, most of whom Herbert never met, are scattered throughout the volume, and possess the same intimacy as those whom Herbert knew well. Part of the secret of this is in Herbert’s unusual approach and technique; he preferred to sketch from a photograph, even when the subject himself was available, as it spared both sitter and artist the rigors of holding a pose, enabling a naturalism that might otherwise be elusive. Secondly, there is Herbert’s medium; although accomplished in oils and a master at watercolors, most of his portraits are executed, as the captions state, with “pencil and scalpel.” This notation gave me a bit of pause – how, after all, did one draw with a scalpel, and why? – that is, until I read his explanation. Herbert’s system was based on one originally developed for shaded topographical maps:
The technique was more artistic than technical – the effect being achieved by drawing the map on a sheet of white artfoil that had been sprayed with a grey printers ink. The mountains and hills on the map were then shaded on the ‘dark’ side with a soft lead pencil, while the sun-facing side of the hill was scraped clean of ink with a surgeon’s scalpel. As a mapping medium it was fairly short-lived, for within a few years other ways had been found of producing this result. But fortunately I had come upon it at a time when it had served as a link between the explorer and the creative spirit, and over the next few years I made several drawings using this medium – most of them portraits based on the photos of the men whose paths had crossed with mine.
As seems characteristic of Sir Wally, he downplays the innovative nature of this technique, but it’s significant that he pioneered its use in portraiture, and found in it a medium uniquely suited to polar subjects (how better to capture his own condensed ice-breath on his beard, or the finest wisps of Peary’s fur-trimmed hood?).
There are almost too many striking works in these pages to single out any for special mention, but among the most powerful are the portraits of ice-bound ships. These were, after all, a commonplace of nineteenth-century maritime art, and many renowned artists, from Clarkson Stanfield to James Hamilton to William Bradford, have created memorable images of them. And yet none of their works, I would venture to say, captures both the stoic isolation of the ships and the intractable force of the ice as does Herbert’s The Fram in Winter on the Arctic Ocean, or Endurance in the Pack Ice. Almost as breathtaking are the many landscapes made on, and of, dog-sledging treks, among them North Pole Group No. 2 and the strikingly monochromatic Crossing the North Pole. These visions, painted by the same hand that held the leads of the dog-teams they depict, and framed by the same eye that first beheld the North Pole, seize the viewer’s gaze with an almost lens-like intensity, blinding them with shafts of light just as Herbert himself had been nearly blinded.
Throughout the book’s narrative, Herbert offers parallel reflections on his career as artist and explorer, regaling readers with understated yet vivid accounts of the most dramatic episodes in his career. From the first moment he sets foot, in darkness, on Antarctic shores, through his unparalleled crossing of the North polar ice cap, to his retirement from active exploration and time as a cruise-ship lecturer, he never loses his rhetorical footing. His summation of the relationship of the explorer to the rest of humanity is characteristically succinct and eloquent, and stands as an apt credo for all those, past and present, who have sojourned in the polar world:
A pioneer has an unspoken responsibility to bring back something of value from one’s travels – a map, a unique discovery, or specialist knowledge that contribute to mankind’s understanding of our planet – but therein lies a dilemma: if one finds paradise, should one reveal its secrets to one’s fellow man? It is not an easy choice; when one discovers a place of beauty, one becomes responsible, in many ways, for its future.
It is a responsibility which Sir Wally Herbert has richly fulfilled, in no small part through this book, which deserves a place on the shelves of anyone who has ever felt the lure of the furthest regions of the earth.