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What the traveller saw The photographs of Eric Newby

Eric Newby (1919-2006) is considered to be one of the most prolific contributors to travel writing and photography in the 20th century.

From an early age, Newby took an interest in photography, receiving his first camera on his seventh birthday. He recalled how, even at that age he was aware that it was “a pretty feeble affair”, taking “pictures the size of the smaller sort of Lithuanian postage stamp - that is, when it took any at all – with ludicrous results”. Despite this his interest in photography continued, with his next camera being a No.2 Box Brownie at about the age of ten, which he used in mostly failed attempts to photograph birds; his other passion at that time. Newby’s first precision camera was a Zeiss Super Ikonta; a tiny folding bellows camera with an F.3.5 Tessar lens, a Compur shutter and a coupled rangefinder which took 16 pictures on each 3 ¼ x 2 ¼ inch roll film.

In 1938, aged 18, Eric signed on the four-masted Finnish barque Moshulu, and engaged in the 30,000 mile round-trip grain trade race between Ireland and Australia, taking his Zeiss Super Ikonta with him. He recounted his experiences in his first book, The Last Grain Race (1956), giving a vivid description of the claustrophobic life of a sailing ship's crew. His combination of “pin-sharp observation with irony and understatement” brought together exceptional photography with witty, humorous and self-deprecating prose that became his trademark.

Newby served with the elite Special Boat Section during World War II. Captured during an operation off the Italian coast in 1942, he spent three years in a prisoner of war camp. He managed to escape, and before being re-captured met a young Italian-Slovenian woman named Wanda Skof, whom he later married, and who would become his equal partner on many of his later travels. His memoir of that time, Love and War in the Apennines (1971) became one of his most acclaimed books.

The Last Grain Race

‘As time passed, the ship possessed us completely. Our lives were given over to it. A hundred times a day each one of us looked aloft at the towering pyramids of canvas, the beautiful deep curves of the leeches of the sails and the straining sheets of the great courses, listened to the deep hum of the wind up the height of the rigging, the thud and judder of the steering-gear as the ship surged along …’

Bending the mizzen lower topgallant to the jackstay with robands made with teased rope yarns.

Eric Newby, 1938-9, S0027622

The Last Grain Race

‘Swinging above the deck on the lifeline with the sea sucking greedily at my seaboots, I began to realise what a fortunate escape I had had from serious injury, for the alacrity with which I had leapt for the lifeline in spite of the great weight of sea-water inside my oilskins had convinced me that I had suffered no damage except the bang on the head.’

Leaping for lifelines, Moshulu, Southern Ocean.

Eric Newby, 1938-9, S0027065

The Last Grain Race

‘It was extremely cold, colder than it had ever been, blowing a strong gale, Force 9. Big seas were coming aboard. I felt very lonely. The ship that had seemed huge and powerful was nothing now, a speck in the Great Southern Ocean, 2000 miles eastwards of New Zealand, 3000 from the coast of South America … To the south there was nothing but the Antarctic ice and darkness. She was running before seas that were being generated in the greatest expanse of open ocean, of a power and size unparalleled because there was no impediment to them as they drove eastwards round the world.’

Big seas come aboard, Moshulu, Southern Ocean.

Eric Newby, 1938-9, S0027642

The Last Grain Race

‘The wind was immense. It no longer blew in the accepted sense of the word at all; instead it seemed to be tearing apart the very substance of the atmosphere. Nor was the sound of it any longer definable in ordinary terms. It no longer roared, screamed, sobbed or sang according to the various levels on which it was encountered. The power and noise of this wind was now more vast and all-comprehending, in its way as big as the sky, bigger than the sea itself, making something that the mind balked at, so that it took refuge in blankness.’

The main and bridge decks seen from the main yard-arm.

Eric Newby, 1938-9, S0027621

After the war, Newby spent a further 10 years in his family dressmaking firm, later recalling his time in Something Wholesale (1962). Newby worked for the couture house Worth Paquin from 1955 to 1956 and then, while starting to write, for the publishers Secker & Warburg for three years. He then returned to fashion as the central dress buyer for John Lewis before adventure called once more.

In 1956, at the age of 36, Newby ended his London career in fashion and decided perhaps impulsively to travel to a remote corner of Afghanistan where no Englishman had ventured for 60 years. He chronicled his expedition in another highly acclaimed book A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958), famously opening the book with a telegram sent to his friend, diplomat Hugh Carless, saying “CAN YOU TRAVEL NURISTAN JUNE?”.

With almost no mountaineering training, Newby and Carless set out to attempt Mir Samir, a glacial and then unclimbed 20,000 ft. peak in the Hindu Kush.

Evelyn Waugh secured Newby’s place in the tradition of humorous travel writing with his preface to A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958): the book that really launched Newby's career with its blend of eccentric English amateurism and irony. Although Newby considered the expedition to be a photographic disaster, due to the pack horse carrying all his exposed film swimming across a lake, Newby’s surviving images captured the stunning landscapes and local people who had made his journey possible.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

‘The air was full of cries, outlandish smells of smoke and animals, dust and excitement. A bus gaily painted like a fantastic dragonfly and laden to suffocation point with passengers, failed to make the sharp turn and became jammed at the entrance to the bridge just at the moment when a flock of sheep, several hundreds strong, coming from the mountains also debouched on it … the noise was deafening …’

Untitled.

Eric Newby, 1956, S0027637

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

‘In Panjshir each bay of cultivation is succeeded by a great bluff up which the track winds, sometimes leaving the river a thousand feet below in the gorges, overhanging it in hair-raising fashion … On this bluff there were no trees, there was no vegetation and, therefore, no shade; the earth was red and burning hot and the dust swirled about us. The sun seemed to fill the entire sky like a great brass shield.’

A shepherd on his way down the Panjshir Valley to Kabul with a herd of fat-tailed sheep.

Eric Newby, 1956, S0027624

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

‘The crest of the ridge now immediately above our heads was like a harbour breakwater built by convict labour, a wild confusion of loose blocks heaped one on top of the other. The way through it was narrow, like the neck of a bottle, so that it was only by pushing and shoving that the horses were popped to the other side like corks… We were huddled together, men and animals, on the edge of a cliff at the head of a desolate valley that stretched away downhill, a wilderness of bleak, brown scree with here and there a drift of dirty, speckled snow, until it was lost in a haze… The first part of the descent needed two men to each horse; one to lead, the other with a tight grip on the tail to brake hard on the bends…’

The Chamar Pass into Nuristan.

Eric Newby, 1956, S0027635

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

‘Here on the Arayu, one of the lonely places of the earth with all the winds of Asia droning over it, where the mountains seemed like bones of the world breaking through, I had the sensation of emerging from a country that would continue to exist more or less unchanged whatever disasters overtook the rest of mankind.’

At the Arayu.

Eric Newby, 1956, S0027636

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

‘We set off; Abdul Ghiyas with his awful head, Hugh with his stomach, myself with my feet and my stomach. Apart from these ills, we all agreed that we felt splendid, at least we could feel our legs moving. “I think we’ve acclimatised splendidly,” said Hugh with satisfaction. I found it difficult to imagine the condition and state of mind of someone who had acclimatised badly.

We moved up the glacier, plodding along with the unaccustomed crampons laced to our boots, clockwork figures, desiccated by the sun, our attention concentrated on the surface immediately ahead which we carefully probed with ice-axes for crevasses. All the time I had the feeling that our behaviour was ludicrous. Perhaps a more experienced party would have looked at the glacier and decided that there were none, at any rate as low down as this. But in the absence of any qualified person to ask it seemed better to continue as we were.’

Looking down on the east glacier from the ridge.

Eric Newby, 1956, S0027626

In 1963, Eric and Wanda were the first Europeans to travel the 1,200 miles of the Ganges by rowing boat, keeping copious notes and taking photographs on a Pentax camera; a journey he describes in Slowly Down the Ganges (1966).

On his return to London Newby began as Travel Editor for the Observer, a role he held for ten years. In What the Traveller Saw (1993) he recalls how he took a large number of photographs during this time, “one of the happiest periods of my life”. Later books, articles and television appearances followed.

Slowly Down the Ganges

‘It seemed as if the dawn would never come. The moon, a pale hemisphere, was churning its way through a sea of cirrus that was moving away, high over Garhwal. There was no wind and the river between the shoals was like sheets of black glass. At about six the sky to the east became faintly red; then it began to flame and the moon was extinguished; clouds of unidentifiable birds flew high overhead; a jackal skulked along the far shore and, knowing itself watched, went up the bank and into the trees… Stiff and full of sand we waited for the kettle to boil, our teeth chattering.’

Early morning.

Eric Newby, 1963, S0027638

Slowly Down the Ganges

‘Now the sun rose above the mist and from out on the water the city was revealed as a great golden crescent of temples, spires, mosques, minarets, ashrams and secular buildings, suspended rather than built high above the river and fading away in either direction into the misty distance. A light breeze started to blow and brilliant paper kites began to edge up the sky. Clouds of pigeons wheeled over the temples and the palaces of the princes whose splendours had departed. There were so many temples that they were like some monstrous growth of fungi. They grew all the way down the bank, in some places to the water’s edge; one even stood in the river into which it had sunk, still held up by its own weight.’

Banaras.

Eric Newby, 1963, S0027618

Slowly Down the Ganges

‘The peak time for bathing was between nine and one o’clock. By good fortune we met Bag Nath and Hira Lal, our boatmen, and they insisted on taking us out to the sangam in their boat … We bathed at the confluence where the long curving line of bathing platforms and boats reached out across the Jumna and the Ganges ripped across it.

It was one o’clock and the water was warm. Out in the stream dolphins came to the surface, sighing like steam engines. This was the meeting-place not only of three rivers but of all humanity.’

The sangam at Allahabad.

Eric Newby, 1963, S0027619

Round Ireland in Low Gear

‘The sun had now gone in and it was growing darker in the pub, as if someone was turning a dimming switch; soon only the man’s pale face was visible and it too was beginning to go out, like that of the cat in Alice in Wonderland. By this time, Doolan’s was beginning to resemble an abode of spiritualists.’

Untitled.

Eric Newby, 1985-6, S0027623

Round Ireland in Low Gear

‘When the pandemonium of the disembarkation through the surf had abated, the various goods and chattels had been carried away, and the currachs had been carried up the beach, upside down over the heads of the rowers so that they looked like strange six-legged monsters, a peace descended on Inisheer that was to remain unbroken until the boat returned five days later.’

Untitled.

Eric Newby, 1985-6, S0027620

The Big Red Train Ride

‘The steppe stretched away through all points of the compass, further than the eye could see, far beyond the confines of the collective: an enormous, pale sea of grass, still waiting for the long-overdue rain to fall on it and make it green and tall and full of flowers. Now, in what was a time of unseasonable drought, in its uniform drabness it was difficult to know where it ended and the sky began, this nothingness with so few things in it, and these only on the edge of it: a white homestead towards which a man was driving a horse-drawn telega, a Buryat on horseback watching over a flock – beyond that it was empty.’

Buryat steppe.

Eric Newby, 1977, S0027627

The Big Red Train Ride

‘At around 5am Moscow time, the Rossiya panted up over the watershed of the Primorskiy Range and began running down through the forests on the Baikal side, through a series of hairpin bends… Then the Rossiya roared into the first of two sets of heavily guarded tunnels, the first tunnels since leaving Moscow, now more than 3,300 miles away; a few minutes later the snow-covered peaks of the Khamar Daban Range on the south side of the lake could be seen. Then, through the haze that shrouded everything, all of a sudden, stupendous, unearthly, ethereal like a great golden bowl with the morning mists rising from it, appeared the lake itself.’

Untitled.

Eric Newby, 1977, S0027640

The Big Red Train Ride

‘At 2.05 pm Moscow time (8.05 in the evening), the Rossiya rolled into Amazar. On the platform the usual welcoming committee of local ladies was dispensing good cheer in the form of red cabbage, spring onions, boiled potatoes and bits of chewing gum shaped like sausages which looked as if they had been rolled between their thighs.

Apart from being a graveyard for old steam locomotives, of which there were hundreds if not thousands in this part of Siberia (all awaiting the moment when the electricity is cut off for the last time and there’s no more oil, to make a comeback), it was a hell of a place.’

Untitled.

Eric Newby, 1977, S0027639

A Small Place in Italy

‘It was a fine and sunny day for the Fiesta di San Remigio, a day on which, according to the inhabitants of Fosdinovo, any day could be called a good day providing it wasn’t coming down in buckets; but this was a really wonderful one; a day to remember ... There were booths under the trees, furnished with long trestle tables with white cloths on them, at which uncannily look-alike farmers, all wearing suits and felt hats and waistcoats with watch chains, sat drinking either vino bianco or nero, munching panini, and all having animated conversations about lo Stato della Nazione, the coming vendemmia which, apparently, was not going to be too bad ... otherwise they talked about the weather.’

Market feast in St. Remigio.

Eric Newby, 1967-1991, S0027625

A Small Place in Italy

‘... we entered a dream-like landscape, travelling down long, green tunnels of vines… roofed in by pergole in which the trellises that supported the vines seemed to be groaning under the weight of the grappoli d’uva, the bunches of grapes; a landscape in which every seemless endless vista led to another, as in a dream …’

The vendemmia – grape harvest – near Fosdinovo.

Eric Newby, 1967-1991, S0027641

'It would be tedious to enumerate the equipment we took with us … there was certainly less of it than any other expedition I have ever heard of. Each of us carried about forty pounds, all except Shir Muhammad who had a large white sheet with all the ropes and ironmongery in it slung across his shoulder. In the grey light we looked for all the world as though we were setting off for an exhumation. Even our ice-axes looked more like picks …

"I wonder what the Royal Geographical Society would think of this lot?” said Hugh, as we splashed through some swampy ground in ‘Indian file’.

“Doesn’t matter what they think, does it? We’re not costing them anything.”

“They’ve lent us an altimeter.”

“It’s nice to think they’ve got an interest in the expedition.”’

As a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Newby’s work was recognised with a CBE in 1994 and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the British Guild of Travel Writers in 2001. His career and inspiration are recognised by many contemporary travel photographers and writers as having influenced their own work.

The Eric Newby Archive has been generously donated to the Society by his family and is now available for research via the Foyle Reading Room. For further information on the Society’s Collections please visit our website.

All images featured in this online exhibition can be purchased from the RGS Print Store.

All images © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)
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Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)
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