Painting by polar explorer uncovered in Antarctic hut

A conservator “got such a fright” that she jumped upon discovering a 118-year-old painting hidden inside a hut in Antarctica.

The watercolour of a small bird labelled ‘1899 Tree Creeper’ was uncovered by Josefin Bergmark-Jimenez from the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust in September 2016. It was tightly packed among papers in a portfolio found inside the hut, one of two dwellings built at Cape Adare in East Antarctica by the 1899 expedition of Carsten Borchgrevink. Until now the surprise find has been kept secret to enable the Trust to focus on restoring 1,500 artefacts discovered in the huts.

At first, the Trust was unable to identify the artist responsible for the watercolour. The hut in which it was found was used both by Borchgrevink’s explorers and the 1911 expedition of Captain Robert Scott. After attending a lecture at New Zealand’s Canterbury University on Dr Edward Wilson, the English scientist, medical doctor and painter who joined Scott’s 1911 and 1912 expeditions, Bergmark-Jimenez solved the mystery.

The presenter showed some of Dr Wilson’s artwork. As soon as I saw his distinctive handwriting, I knew he had painted the Tree Creeper”, the conservator explained. Bergmark-Jimenez also found an article from a 1911 copy of the ‘Lyttelton Times’ among the papers in the hut and realised Scott’s party must have picked it up when they visited New Zealand en route to Antarctica.

Vibrantly coloured, the painting was found in excellent condition considering the susceptibility of watercolours to light. It is thought the darkness and cold of the hut and the fact that the painting was interleaved with other sheets of paper in the portfolio acted to preserve it.

Once restoration of the two Cape Adare huts is complete the Trust will return the painting together with the 1,500 artefacts to their original locations in accordance with the site’s status as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA). The Trust has created a high quality facsimile of the painting, which it expects will “no doubt…attract global interest – particularly from our friends in the UK.”

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