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Encounter and Exploration Hidden Histories of Exploration

The art of exploration

Visual depictions of landscape and peoples played a significant part in the history of scientific exploration.

Sketches and paintings were produced by many different types of people involved in exploration, including official expedition artists, such as Thomas Baines, and naval and military officers, like William Smyth, trained in the art of drawing. The RGS-IBG Collections also include notable examples of works produced in collaboration with local artists, such as the watercolours by Joseph Brown, the Castillo brothers and José Manuel Groot in Bogota.

Visual imagery can provide a compelling record of cultural encounter, albeit one mediated by the colonial lenses adopted by European explorers. Many works depict local people in generalised and romanticised terms, although artists like Baines managed to convey a greater sense of individuality. In scientific expedition reports, the tendency was to represent individuals as specimens of their race or culture. More rarely, as in the portrait of the Maori Chief Tuai, individuals could be named, in this case reflecting his importance to the expedition. Even in the most colonial of records, we can trace indigenous actions and agency.

In this plate the engraver has combined two original sketches, one depicting Tuai or Tuhi (chief of the Kahuwera) wearing European dress, the other chief in traditional Maori dress. The image is unusual, although not unique, in naming both individuals rather than depicting them solely as ‘types’. Tuai spoke English, having been sent to England by a missionary, and played an intermediary role between the French expedition and local Maori.

Two New Zealand chiefs. By Ambroise Tardieu after L. F. Lejeune and A. Chazal. Coloured engraving in L. I. Duperrey, Voyage autour du monde: histoire de la voyage, Paris, 1826, 24.2 x 33.1cm, S0020671

Shibante, who worked for a Portuguese colonial official at Tete, helped to pilot Livingstone’s expedition on the Zambesi. Livingstone described him as an ‘intelligent active young fellow’ who ran a thriving business on the river. Those local people contributing to the work of an expedition are more likely to be named in visual depictions of them. 'Shibante, a native of Mazaro, boatman and pilot belonging to Major Sicard'. By Thomas Baines, 1859. Oil on canvas, 46 x 65.7cm, S0013901

William Smyth, a midshipman, made a large number of sketches during a naval voyage to the Pacific in 1825-8. They included this romanticised view of Pitcairn Island, home of the descendants of the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian wives. Such bucolic depictions are testament to the British re-imagining of Pitcairn in the early nineteenth-century, following the chaos and violence of the community’s beginnings.

'A view of the village at Pitcairn Island', including the observatory of H.M.S. Blossom. By William Smyth, 1825. Watercolour, 27.5 x 45 cm, S0020683

Spix and Martius, German naturalists who travelled through Brazil in 1817-20, were intrigued by Amerindian knowledge of plants and animals. Inspired by the work of Alexander von Humbolt, they used landscape imagery as a source of geographical knowledge.

'Ausgrabung und Zubereitung der Schildkröteneier, am Amazonenstrome' (Excavation and cooking of turtle on the Amazon). By Steingröbel after Martius. Lithograph in J. B. von Spix & K. F. P. von Martius, Atlas zur reise in Brasilien, Munich, 1834, 31.9 x 48.7cm, S0020678

After the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, the French organized several scientific expeditions to the Pacific and Australasia. Engravings in published reports chose to depict mainly benign encounters with indigenous peoples, placing emphasis on the scientific nature of such expeditions and obscuring their other aims.

'Entrevue avec les naturels de L’Île Ombai' (Interview with the inhabitants of the island of Ombai). By Bovinet after J. Arago. Engraving, in L. Freycinet, Voyage autor du monde: atlas historique, Paris, 1825, 18.4 x 26.2cm, S0020656

Joseph Brown, a British trader, lived in Colombia between 1826 and 1841. Several of his watercolours in the Society's collections were the product of collaborations with local artists, including José Manuel de Groot and the Castillo brothers.

'Country riding costume of the plain of Bogotá'. By J. Castillo, after J. Brown, 1834. Watercolour, 29.3 x 45cm, S0020549

The watercolours attributed to Joseph Brown make up the earliest substantial collection of paintings of everyday life in Colombia. They appear to have been intended for publication in a book of picturesque scenes. This image was based on an original drawing by José Manuel Groot.

'The interior of a store in the principal street of Bogotá with mule drivers purchasing'. By Joseph Brown, after a drawing by J.M. Groot, c. 1840. Watercolour, 22 x 30.4cm, S0020547

Maritime exploration

The visual culture of maritime exploration is reflected in a range of material in the Society's Collections.

The Collections include published reports and atlases from large-scale scientific expeditions and private journals kept by naval officers, commercial whalers and independent travellers.

While these records depict the experience of cultural encounter from European, colonial, points of view, their attention to the detail of local material culture is striking. We can also trace the enduring influence here of Enlightenment models of natural history, in which cultural artefacts were specimens to be classified and mapped.

European navigators were especially interested in the technology and design of boats and ships in the Pacific and the Indonesian archipelago.

'Vue de L’Île Pisang: Corocores de L’Île Guébé' (View of the Island of Pisang: Corocoros of the Island of Guebe). By Couton after J.-A. Pellion. Coloured engraving, in L. Freycinet, Voyage autour du monde: atlas historique, Paris, 1825, 18.4 x 26.2cm, S0020657

The arrangement of specimens in natural history illustrations provided a model for the display of human artefacts in expedition reports. 'Zoophytes no. 3'. By J. Constant after R. P. Lesson and J. G. Prêtre. Coloured engraving, in L. I. Duperrey, Voyage autour du monde: histoire naturelle - zoologie, Paris, 1826, 32.5 x 24cm, S0020673
Ethnographic materials are prominent in the archives of maritime travel. Nineteenth-century accounts frequently abstracted these objects from their contexts. Today, anthropologists seek to understand the contexts in which artefacts are used and exchanged. Hats, combs and other artefacts from New Guinea. By Ambroise Tardieu after A. Chazal. Coloured engraving, in L. I. Duperrey, Voyage autour du monde: histoire de la voyage, Paris, 1826, 33.2 x 24cm, S0020669
These delicate images of jewellery and other adornments were rendered in the style of natural history illustration. Jewellery and other artefacts from Birara, New Guinea. By Ambroise Tardieu after A. Chazal. Coloured engraving, in L. I. Duperrey, Voyage autour du monde: histoire de la voyage, Paris, 1826, 50 x 23.5cm, S0020668
John Linton Palmer’s journals depict places visited during his career as a naval surgeon between 1850 and 1868. On a voyage along the Pacific Coast of North America, he made a series of sketches of Indian and Inuit communities. Portraits and artefacts from Vancouver Island. By J. Linton Palmer, 1851. Pencil, pen and ink with watercolour, 52.5 x 36cm, S0020698
Inuit artefacts from the Bering Strait. By J. Linton Palmer, 1851-2. Pencil, pen and ink with watercolour, 52.5 x 36 cm, S0020706
Like many naval surgeons, Linton Palmer developed an interest in natural history and ethnography, though his perspective was inevitably partial. Village of Taboga [Panama], from the verandah of the coaling station. By J. Linton Palmer, 1852. Watercolour, pen and ink, 17.4 x 25.8cm (whole page 52.5 x 36cm), S0020697

Exploration on camera

The camera was widely promoted as an ally of geographical science. Yet it also reinforced potent myths about explorers and exploration.

The invention of photography in 1839 was greeted with enthusiasm by geographers, though only with the introduction of portable cameras and moving film did exploration and photography become truly inseparable. The RGS offered photographic training to explorers, appointing John Thomson instructor in 1886, and later promoted the use of film on scientific expeditions. Photographs, especially in lantern slide form, became an essential part of geographical education and entertainment.

Archival photographs can provide powerful evidence concerning the landscape and people encountered by explorers, as well as the role of local guides and porters. More rare is evidence concerning the production of photographic images in the field, as in the depiction of the Brazilian film-maker Silvino Santos in his Amazonian 'laboratory'. Archival photographs can obscure as much as they reveal: the camera is not a neutral witness.

John Thomson established his reputation as a photographer after publishing illustrated books on his extensive travels in the Far East during the 1870s. He later worked on the illustrated serial Street Life in London. Thomson was appointed as RGS Instructor in Photography in 1886.

'Laos village, interior of Siam'. By John Thomson, 1866. B & W photograph, platinum print, 39.2 x 49.9cm, S0020684

Studio photography helped to establish explorers in the public eye, especially through the medium of cartes-de-visite, and was a powerful (self)promotional tool. Portrait of Henry Morton Stanley, 1885. By John Thomson, 'photographer to the Queen', 1885. B & W photograph, 16.6 x 11cm, S0014460

Lantern slide shows conveyed geographical knowledge, linking science with entertainment.

H. G. Ponting lectures on his travels in Japan to members of the British Antarctic Expedition, Cape Evans. By Herbert Ponting, 1911. Tinted lantern slide, 5.3 x 7cm, S0016042

The navigation of rivers in British Guiana (Guyana) required overland transport of boats in order to bypass cataracts and to see such spectacular views as those of the Kaieteur Falls. Photography captures these everyday parts of expeditionary practice, allowing us a glimpse into life on an expedition. 'The path to the Kaieteur, carring the batteau past the Amutu cataract'. By Everard im Thurn / C. F. Norton, 1878. Sepia photograph, 23.1 x 18.2cm, S0005196
The Kaieteur Falls, a place of spiritual significance for the Patamuna people of Guyana. To Everard im Thurn, museum curator and later a colonial official, the cataracts on the way to the Falls presented a major obstacle to exploration. Studying historic expedition photography helps us to explore some of these tensions and complexities. 'The Kaieteur falls'. By Everard im Thurn / C.F. Norton, 1978. B & W photograph, 24 x 19.1cm, S0000026

Almost certainly taken by the commercial photographer C.F. Norton, this picture shows Everard im Thurn (in the foreground wearing a white cap) alongside Amerindian members of his expedition to the Kaieteur Falls.

River Essequibo at Kimparu. Everard im Thurn / C. F. Norton, 1878. B & W photograph, 18.8 x 24cm, S0005227

In 1893 Im Thurn published an influential paper on anthropological uses of the camera, calling for a more naturalistic style of photography in documenting local and indigenous peoples. 'True Caribs'. By Everard im Thurn, 1890. B & W photograph, 17.9 x 11.6cm, S0011303
Pedro Caripoco, a Baré Indian who had accompanied the French explorer Chaffanjon on the Upper Orinoco (Venezuela) in 1886, helped to guide the American explorer Alexander Hamilton Rice on his expedition to the Amazon in 1919-20. 'Pedro Caripoco'. By Alexander Hamilton Rice, c. 1919-20. B & W photograph, 11.6 x 8.8cm, S0020798

Silvino Santos working in his makeshift ‘laboratory’ at Boa Esperança. Santos made his own films of the Hamilton Rice expedition, and is remembered today as one of the pioneers of documentary film in Brazil.

Silvino Santos at Boa Esperança. By Alexander Hamilton Rice, c. 1919-20. B & W photograph, 7.8 x 13.2cm, S0020797

Filming on Everest

Climbing Mount Everest (1922) was the first film of an Everest expedition, and the earliest documentary filmed in Tibet.

As well as depicting the high-altitude climb, which ended disastrously when seven porters (six of them Sherpa) lost their lives in an avalanche, the film contains extended sequences of masked ritual dances in Rongbuk (Rongphu) monastery at the foot of Everest. Its first public showing in Central Hall was apparently spoiled by the London fog. Subsequent showings in the Philharmonic Hall, accompanied by music from Tibet arranged for orchestra by Howard Somervell, one of the climbers, were more successful.

Shown here are scenes depicting the appointment of sixty Sherpas in Darjeeling, and an audience with the Head Lama of Rongbuk monastery, Zatul Rimpoche. The latter footage, supposed to represent the blessing of the expedition, was actually taken after the descent from Everest. It includes a brief glimpse of a small statue of a White Tara, wrapped in a scarf presented to Gen. Charles Bruce. The expedition interpreter, Karma Paul, is shown explaining the nature of the gift.

Original footage (Dir. J.B.L. Noel, 1922) held in the British Film Institute.

Tibetan deity presented to Gen. Bruce by the Chief Lama of Rongbuk (Rongphu) monastery in 1922. Although Bruce described it as a Green Tara, signifying readiness to act, the deity has the characteristics of a White Tara, representing all-seeing compassion. The death of seven porters on the expedition make this a particularly poignant gift.

White Tara. Bronze, 8.6 x 6 x 3.7cm

Using a specially modified camera, John Noel captured climbing scenes with a twenty-inch telephoto lens. In this picture, a partially hidden Sherpa helps to balance the telephoto lens. The unidentified photographer who took this picture was probably another Sherpa porter.

'Captain Noel and kinematograph camera with large telephoto lens established on the Chang la [North Col] at 23,000 feet'. By unknown photographer, 1922. B & W photograph, 7.6 x 10.2cm, S0001250

Climbing Mount Everest. Film programme, 1922. Printed paper, 25.4 x 18.8cm, S0001277

To establish a climbing route above the North Col, team members had to find a way through the Seracs on the East Rongbuk Glacier.

'Seracs, East Rongbuk Glacier above Camp II'. By George Finch, 1922. B & W photograph, 7.5 x 10.3cm, S0004978

Everest expedition members, 1922. By J.B.L. Noel, 1922. B & W photograph, 8.4 x 11 cm, S0001176

During the third summit attempt on 7 June 1922, led by George Mallory, seven members of the climbing party died, following an avalanche below the Chang La (North Col): Sangay Sherpa, Temba Sherpa, Lhakpa Sherpa, Pasang Namgya Sherpa, Norbu Sherpa, Pasang Namgya Sherpa, Norbu Bhotia, Pema Sherpa and Thankay (Dorje) Sherpa.

'Party near the top of the Chang La'. By T. Howard Somervell, 1922. B & W photograph, 7.6 x 10.2cm, S0014996

John Noel had the support of eight Sherpas to carry his gear and assist in film-making on Everest in 1922.

'Two Sherpa photographic porters who carried Kinema camera'. By J. B. L. Noel, 1922. B & W photograph, 9.6 x 7.5cm, S0001294

Sherpas’ families received pay on behalf of the men, those with children receiving more. 'Taking coolies dependants’ thumbprints'. By J.B.L. Noel, 1922. B & W photograph, 8.1 x 10.1 cm, S0020182 © RGS-IBG / S. Noel
Karma Paul, the Tibetan interpreter, worked for successive expeditions on Everest from 1922 to 1938. He is pictured here with James Gavin and Wyn Harris in 1936, outside the Planters’ Club in Darjeeling. 'Preparing for recruitment of porters in Darjeeling'. By J.B.L. Noel, 1922. B & W photograph, 6.1 x 7.9cm, S0011201
A receipt book for monthly payments to Sherpas’ dependants for work on the 1922 Everest Expedition. MSS voucher book, 1922. 34.3 x 22.1cm, S0004931
The 1922 expedition’s smooth passage through Tibet was attributed by Gen. Bruce to the tact and charm of the interpreter, Karma Paul: ‘He served us very well from one end of the expedition to the other’. Karma Paul. By unknown photographer, 1935. B & W photograph, 10.8 x 7.5cm, S0011201

This exhibition is part of the work of Felix Driver and Lowri Jones at Royal Holloway, University of London, in collaboration with Vandana Patel at the RGS-IBG, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

All images © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

All text © Royal Holloway, University of London