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Rare photos illuminate Mawson’s Antarctic adventures

Arts & Culture

Rare Antarctic photographs and other artefacts from the collection of explorer Sir Douglas Mawson – including items from his expeditions and even a pair of well-worn socks – are currently on show at Michael Treloar Antiquarian Booksellers.

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The selling exhibition – which also features personal effects originally owned by Mawson’s father-in-law, metallurgist and BHP general manager from 1899-1921 GD Delprat – is described in the Treloar’s catalogue as a selection of 37 items, “some rare and important, others unusual or curious, but at all times interesting”.

Among them is a series of large vintage blue-toned carbon prints taken by renowned photographer Frank Hurley during the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911–1914.

Michael Treloar says a highlight is an evocative image titled A Blizzard, which shows assistant medical officer Leslie Whetter and assistant collector John Close battling the harsh elements to cut ice near the expedition’s winter quarters at Cape Denison.

The 351mm × 417mm print, which has a price tag of $25,000, is from the original 1915 Australian exhibition of Hurley’s photographs. A cropped reproduction also featured on the cover of the Wakefield Press edition of Mawson’s autobiography, Home of the Blizzard.

“It’s an extraordinary image,” says Treloar.

“The men are digging blocks of ice to take indoors to melt for drinking water… he [Hurley] has captured something for all time.”

Three expeditioners with ‘masks of ice’, by Frank Hurley: a gelatin silver photo taken in the winter quarters at Cape Denison.

Other photos Hurley took during the 1911-14 expedition are also on show, including striking landscapes and an eerie gelatin silver photograph (above) of three unnamed men wearing snow hoods encrusted with ice.

There are also several series of stereophotographs, some of which were taken by geologist and explorer Tannatt William Edgeworth David on Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition of 1907–1909 and have descriptions written on the back by Mawson.

A pair of long cream woollen socks
that belonged to Douglas Mawson.

The items in the exhibition have the guaranteed provenance of the Mawson and Delprat families and were assembled from seven different sources, with Treloar saying “serendipity” played a role in pulling them together.

The pair of long cream woollen socks, for example, came from a local charitable group but had previously been in the possession of an Adelaide-based family friend of Douglas Mawson and his wife Paquita. Treloar was able to track down a number of stereophotographs of Antarctica that had been gifted to the same woman and passed on to her grandson.

Described as having discoloured soles and some darning, with Mawson’s initials in ink on each sole, the socks – now priced at $1250 –  are thought to have been worn by Mawson to the South Pole, although this is not confirmed.

“They were definitely his … they come with very strong association material,” says Treloar, adding that they are being sold with several stationery items including a small circa-1950s gift card signed from “Sir Douglas and Lady Mawson”.

One of Frank Hurley’s vertical panoramas from the BANZARE voyages. It shows the SY Discovery under full sail, with Hurley visible in the crow’s nest, holding the pole on which the camera is mounted.

A rare item on show that is known to have been taken to Antarctica on the 1911-14 expedition is a copy of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for the Modern Reader, which is inscribed “From C.W. Mackellar 1911” and bears a stamp stating “Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911. Mackellar’s Library”. (Mackellar was the name of an English financier who donated books for the journey.)

Erecting Tents in a Blizzard, by Charles Harrisson: an original oil painting from the 1911–14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition.

The most expensive item in the catalogue is an original oil painting by Charles Harrison, titled Erecting Tents in a Blizzard and still in its original gilt wood frame. The biologist and artist gave the painting (priced at $35,000) to the Mawsons as a wedding present in 1914, the same year he disappeared with research ship the FIS Endeavour, believed to have sunk on the way back to Australia from Macquarie Island.

Some of Treloar’s favourite items in the exhibition come from a later period: a series of large vertical panoramas taken by Frank Hurley during the British, Australian, New Zealand Antarctic Research Expeditions (BANZARE) from 1929-31. Several show the expedition ship SY Discovery under sail, while one captures a sunset off Proclamation Island.

“They are spectacular. They were produced on an expedition that was essentially a scientific expedition and they were only on land or on ice for two nights. There wasn’t the interest in those expeditions, so it was a completely different set of circumstances.

“This set of photographs are probably as rare as any items in the catalogue, as they were not produced for wide distribution.”

Other items in the Mawson-Delprat exhibition include a 17th-century Dutch armoire, a Georgian wine cooler, and elaborate shawls that once belonged to Lady Mawson. It is continuing at Michael Treloar’s Antiquarian Booksellers on North Terrace until September 27.

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