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April 25, 2013

Antarctic Bookshelf 7: Aurora Australis edited by Ernest Shackleton, 1986 Reissue

In 1908 the crew of Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition occupied themselves over the dark Antarctic winter in part by producing Aurora Australis, the first book written, printed, illustrated, and bound on the frozen continent. Printed on a letterpress and bound in wooden covers fashioned from provisions cases, less than 70 copies are believed to exist. As a result the book fell into relative obscurity until it saw reissue as a trade edition nearly eight decades later, allowing the general public to experience the text and artwork in its entirety.

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The trade edition is not a strict facsimile of the original book. Besides obviously lacking wooden boards, it has two notable additions. One is a preface by Lord [Baron] Edward Shackleton, the younger son of Sir Ernest. He comments on the original edition: “Edited by my father, painstakingly printed by [Ernest] Joyce, [Frank] Wild, and [George] Marston, and bound by [Bernard] Day in Venesta packing case boards, it has become a thing of legend. It seems that no copies were sold to the general public and with so few having been produced in the first place many Antarctic collectors have never had the opportunity even to see a copy. It contains no very important information about the success or otherwise of expedition affairs but it does show imagination, ingenuity and a surprising degree of professionalism in the difficult circumstances.”

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The other addition is a valuable introduction by John Millard, an Antarctic scholar with a special interest in Aurora Australis. From Millard we learn that Sir Ernest Shackleton, a lover of poetry and literature, took great pleasure in polar publishing. He had served as editor of The South Polar Times and The Blizzard magazines on Robert F. Scott’s Discovery Expedition of 1901-1903, and recognized the benefits of such projects to his men’s well-being, creativity, and morale.

In 1981 Millard initiated a worldwide search of all extant copies of Aurora Australis, hoping to catalog the history of each one’s ownership. “To add to the useful information of the survey I also sought any information about inscriptions, signatures or other annotations of interest to historians, bibliophiles, book collectors and book sellers. To date (Spring 1985) with the help of many correspondents, I have located 56 copies. There is also some evidence for a further number of copies as yet untraced.”

Millard collected data from auction records, booksellers’ catalogs, institutional archives, and private libraries. In the process, he learned that some of the copies vary slightly in content and arrangement. For instance there are two versions of a particular article, ‘An Ancient Manuscript’ by Shellback (Frank Wild), one in which an illustration replaces text and another in which text replaces illustration. Other variants throughout the books have to do with ink color, cover sheet placement, and missing leaves.

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Millard concludes by speculating on how the 60 or so copies were distributed: “It seems that one original intention was to sell copies of the Aurora Australis to the general public for the benefit of Expedition funds. This would have been a logical idea after the success of the facsimile editions of the South Polar Times. Margery and James Fisher, in their biography of Shackleton, suggested that this was not done because difficulties arose over the compensation to be given to Joyce, Wild, Marston & Day. A more likely reason would seem to be insufficient paper, ink, and available time to produce a sufficient quantity to make this a viable proposition. It seems likely that each member of the overwintering party received at least one copy of the book and other copies were given to friends and benefactors of the Expedition.”

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Technology has come a long way since Millard conducted his research nearly 30 years ago. An increasing number of museums and collections are posting their archives online where several presentations of Aurora Australis can already be found. Two of the more impressive showcases as of this writing are by the Biodiversity Heritage Library/Museum Victoria, Melbourne and the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney. The momentum of the internet and global communication may well bring all copies online with time, enabling comparison and study with increased ease.

The “First Public Edition” of Aurora Australis was published in 1986 by Bluntisham Books and The Paradigm Press of Arlburgh, Harleston, Norfolk UK. This book itself is now out of print and relatively hard to find.


July 9, 2012

Long View Study No. 21 (Cape Royds)

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My series on Antarctic research stations continues with a salute to Ernest Shackleton’s Cape Royds hut, home base to his team’s 1907-09 British Antarctic Expedition, also known as the Nimrod Expedition. The Royds hut facilitated cutting-edge polar science of its day in the areas of geology, zoology, geography and meteorology. The scientific team’s director, Sir Tannatt William Edgeworth David, led from here the first parties ever to reach the South Magnetic Pole and the summit of Mt. Erebus, the world’s southernmost active volcano. Royds was also the launch pad for Shackleton’s 1908 attempt for the South Geographic Pole. His team trekked to within 97 nautical miles (180.6 km / 112.2 mi) of their goal, the farthest south attained by any expedition at the time.

It was also at Royds that Shackleton’s men printed and bound Aurora Australis, the first book ever published in Antarctica. It consisted of of essays, poems and drawings printed on a hand press in an edition of about 25 completed copies whose wooden covers were fashioned from provisions cases. Such crates, in abundance, were repurposed by them for hut shelving and furniture as well.

My use of wood, letterpress makeready, typographic letterforms, and book / bookshelf structure in Long View Study No. 21 allude to the Shackleton team’s production of Aurora Australis and their resourcefulness. The collage’s central figure is Sir Ernest himself who edited the book, wrote its two prefaces, and contributed an ode to Mount Erebus under the pseudonym NEMO.

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My piece functions either as a wall hanging or a free-standing artwork. A detached wooden element serves as a shelf embellishment in wall mode or as a bottom support in free-standing mode. In either case the right-hand ‘shelf unit’ is modifiable with extra shelves of varying lengths. The hinged ‘spine’ indicates the manner in which the complete string of Long View panels will connect to one another to form an accordion-fold structure.


February 10, 2011

Long View Study No. 13 (Nimrod Shore Party)

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The figures in this piece represent Ernest Shackleton and his Antarctic crew from the 1907-09 ‘Nimrod’ Expedition who produced the letterpress-printed Aurora Australis
book, fashioning its wooden covers from recycled provision cases.

Each page of the triptych is 11.75″ high x 10.25″ wide, created in graphite and cut
paper. The set is currently on exhibit in Cutters/Cork, the latest in the Cutters series of international contemporary collage exhibitions curated by James Gallagher. The show is
up through March 12 at West Cork Arts Centre in County Cork, Ireland.


Filed under: Aurora Australis Book,Studies — mbartalos @ 11:55 pm

May 10, 2010

Long View Study No. 9 (The AA Five)

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“Long View Study #9 (The AA Five)” is the latest study for my Long View Project series whose theme is waste management and recycling in Antarctica.

“AA” refers to Aurora Australis whose covers were fashioned from wooden provision cases in 1908 to create the first book edition ever published in Antarctica. “Five” refers to the five major figures behind this effort: Ernest Shackleton who edited the edition, illustrator George Marsten, printers Frank Wild and Ernest Joyce, and Bernard Day who bound the books. AA’s production marks an early instance of recycling on the continent and exemplifies the resourcefulness and creativity inherent to Antarctic scientific and artistic endeavors today.

The imagery draws from my 2009 visit to Shackleton’s hut where the edition was created over winter a century earlier. Shackleton devised the project to ensure that “the spectre know as ‘polar ennui’ never made its appearance,” as he put it.

I’m using found wood, paper, wire, hardware, and a leaf to reference the explorers’ workspace environment, their team efforts, and their fondness for tobacco. References to their fondness for whiskey to follow in future artworks.

The piece measures 7″ wide x 12″ high and is currently on exhibit in REFRAME: Making Sense of Waste at ARC Gallery in San Francisco through May 30.


Filed under: Aurora Australis Book,Studies — mbartalos @ 11:25 pm

January 21, 2009

Cape Royds: Shackleton’s Hut

Today I visited Cape Royds, about 20 miles (32 km) north of McMurdo Station. The helicopter ride offered spectacular views of the rugged Ross Island coastline, McMurdo Sound, and Mount Erebus, the world’s southernmost active volcano.

Royds is the site of the ‘Nimrod’ hut, Ernest Shackleton’s 1907-09 British Antarctic Expedition headquarters where Aurora Australis was written, designed, printed, and bound in the course of a harsh winter a hundred years ago. It was an important destination for me — a pilgrimage even — given the book’s centrality to my project.

Here is the hut in 1908, as drawn by George Marston for Aurora Australis

…and here it is today, remarkably intact thanks to consistently sub-freezing temperatures and its designation as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area under the Antarctic Treaty System. The hut is one of four historic sites under the care of the Antarctic Heritage Trust which ensures their preservation and legacy for future study.

It didn’t take long to find the wooden Venesta cases I’d come to see. Shackleton and his men offloaded no less than 2,000 of them from their ship Nimrod, dozens of which still remain stacked in and around the hut. There were plenty of boxes for the Nimrod crew to recycle, not only as Aurora Australis book covers but also as book shelves, supply cases, shoe boxes, platforms, supports and furniture.

Stacked provision cases also served to create separate living and working areas. The since-dismantled 6×7-foot letterpress cubicle was among these, situated where the cot juts out from behind the curtain on the left. This tight space was known as ‘The Rogues’ Retreat,’ also accommodating a large sewing machine and bunks for the printers Frank Wild and Ernest Joyce.

Looking back towards the entrance, the foreground cot marks the same spot. The printing equipment was long since returned to England but unused reams of the book’s ‘Abbey Mills Greenfield’ watermarked paper remain on a dark shelf along the north wall.

The paper is among 5,000+ hut artifacts conserved as part of the Ross Sea Preservation Project led by the Antarctic Heritage Trust. This shows the bottom of a paper ream before and after treatment for acid, mold, and moisture damage.

Even in extreme instances such as this one, treatment helps slow down the deterioration process.

Much thanks to Antarctic Heritage Trust Secretary Fiona Wills for permission to reproduce these photos. More of the Trust’s preservation efforts are described in fascinating detail on the London Natural History Museum’s Antarctic conservation blog.

Food containers too are conserved as tangible relics of expeditions. The extensive variety of prepared and preserved foods circa 1907 is impressive. They include dried spinach, mint, stewed kidneys, ox tail soup, India relish, mutton cutlets in tomato sauce, Irish brawn, marrow fat, stewed rump steaks, tripe, concentrated egg powder, kippered mackerel, minced collops, and red currants to name a few. There’s also the Antarctic classic, pemmican: dried meat mixed with fat, available in varieties for men and dogs.

A medicine cabinet sits alongside the south wall; carbolic acid marked ‘poison’ differentiates it from the neighboring cases of food.

The hut is exquisite for its authenticity. Original socks still hang from clothes lines; tattered gloves lie on cots, newspapers languish where they were left.

Relics also dot the hill behind the hut, down towards the icy shore. They’re rusted through, perhaps too decayed to be saved.

Nearby, a plank photographed by my friend Holly Troy reads “Ship Nimrod Lyttleton.” Lyttleton is the New Zealand port from where the expedition was launched. Painful as it is to see these artifacts eaten by the elements, Antarctic Specially Protected Area status prevents others than conservators from disturbing them.

At expedition’s end, Shackleton wrote about his departure from Cape Royds: “We all turned out to give three cheers and to take a last look at the place where we had spent so many happy days. The hut was not exactly a palatial residence…but, on the other hand it had been our home for a year that would always live in our memories…We watched the little hut fade away in the distance with feelings almost of sadness, and there were few men aboard who did not cherish a hope that some day they would once more live strenuous days under the shadow of mighty Erebus”.

Shackleton never returned to Cape Royds in his lifetime. Afterwards is anyone’s guess. One thing for sure: if ever a place effectively evoked its former inhabitants’ ghosts, this is it.


January 20, 2009

Aurora Australis

Back in this blog’s first post, I introduced Aurora Australis, the first book ever published in Antarctica. I talked briefly about its significance to my project and promised more information on the edition’s creation. Here it is, as a prelude to tomorrow’s visit to Shackleton’s Hut at Cape Royds where this book was born.

Aurora Australis was created during the British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-09, also known as the Nimrod Expedition. The voyage was led by Ernest Shackleton with the aim of making the first successful journey to the South Pole. He made it to within a hundred miles of his goal, setting a new record for southernmost travel. The expedition’s other accomplishments included the discovery of the location of the South Magnetic Pole, first traverse of the Trans-Antarctic mountain range, first travel on the South Polar Plateau, discovery of the Beardmore Glacier, and the first ascent of Mount Erebus.

These feats were achieved in teams. The Southern Party shown above made the attempt on the Pole. Left to right: Frank Wild, Ernest Shackleton, Eric Marshall, and Jameson Boyd Adams.

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Before departing England, Shackleton conceived the idea of printing a book as an activity to occupy his men during the dark, cold winter months in their Ross Island hut. They hauled what Shackleton describes as a “complete printing outfit” to Antarctica including a hand-press similar to the one shown here for printing movable metal type, and an etching press to print the illustrations. The composing stick on the left is used for setting type prior to positioning it in the press.

Aurora Australis is an anthology of the party’s personal writings, poetry, and narratives both fiction and non-fiction. Shackleton edited the 120-page book, wrote its two prefaces, and contributed an ode to Mount Erebus under the pseudonym “NEMO.”

George Marston (left) was the official expedition artist. He created and printed Aurora Australis‘s title pages and twelve illustrations by algraphy — printing from aluminium plates. Frank Wild (center) and Ernest Joyce (right, foreground) printed the text with the benefit of only 3 weeks’ training in lieu of the usual seven years of print shop apprenticeship.

The book was bound by Bernard Day, the electrician and mechanic, seen here taking the first motor car in Antarctica for a spin on the sea ice. (The car, built and donated by Arrol-Johnston company of Paisley, Scotland, ultimately failed to perform in the cold and the snow.)

Day fashioned wooden covers from provisions cases, made spines from harness leather, and bound the perforated pages with green silk cord. Only about 25 of approximately 90 printed copies were bound. These are often referred to by the writing on the packing crate boards — the Huntington has the ‘Blueberries’ copy for example, while the National Library of New Zealand has the ‘Julienne Soup’ and ‘Beans’ copies.

In the book’s prefaces, Shackleton describes the adverse conditions under which the book was produced. James Murray, the expedition’s biologist, elaborates further with this fantastic account in his book Antarctic Days:

“The reader, contemplating the finished work, would have no glimmering of suspicion of the immense difficulties under which the work had to be produced.

It was winter, and dark, and cold. The work had to be done, in the intervals of more serious occupations, in a small room occupied by fifteen men, all of them following their own avocations, with whatever of noise, vibration and dirt might be incidental to them.

The inevitable state of such a hut, after doing all possible for cleanliness, can be imagined. Fifteen men shut up together, say during a blizzard which lasts a week. Nobody goes out unless on business; every one who goes out brings in snow on his feet and clothes. Seal-blubber is burned, mixed with coal, for economy. The blubber melts and runs out on the floor; the ordinary unsweepable soil of the place is a rich compost of all filth, cemented with blubber, more nearly resembling the soil of a whaling-station than anything else I know.

Dust from the stove fills the air and settles on the paper as it is being printed. If anything falls on the floor it is done for; if somebody jogs the compositor’s elbow as he is setting up matter, and upsets the type into the mire, I can only leave the reader to imagine the result.

The temperature varies; it is too cold to keep the printer’s ink fluid; it gets sticky, and freezes. To cope with this a candle was set burning underneath the plate on which the ink was. This was all right, but it made the ink too fluid, and the temperature had to be regulated by moving the candle about.

Once the printers were called away while the candle was burning, and nobody happened to notice it. When they returned they found that the plate had overheated and had melted the inking roller of gelatinous substance. I believe it was the only one on the Continent and had to be re-cast somehow.

So much for the ordinary printing. The lithography was still worse. All the evils enumerated above persecuted the lithographer, and he had others all to himself. The more delicate part of his work could not be done when the hut was in full activity, with vibration, noise and settling smuts, so Marston used to do most of his printing in the early hours of the morning, when the hut was as nearly quiet and free from vibration as it ever became, and there was a minimum of dust (at least in suspension in the air).

I had the opportunity of observing his tribulations, as, for similar reasons, I found the early hours best for biological study. At these hours the number of loafers round the stove (drinking tea) might be reduced to three or four, or even fewer.

I do not pretend to know the nature of the special difficulties that the climate introduced into lithography, but I know this, that I’ve frequently seen Marston do everything right—clean, ink, and press—but for some obscure reason the prints did not come right. And I’ve seen him during a whole night pull off half a dozen wrong ones for one good print, and he did not use so much language over it as might have been expected.”

Last summer I had the opportunity to leaf through the Huntington Library’s copy with Gloria Kondrup, director of Art Center’s Archetype Press in Pasadena. We marveled over the materials and craftsmanship of the book, especially given Murray’s description of the ordeal.

Shown above are Marston’s prints Night Watchman and At the Edge of the Crater.

We also perceived Japanese artist Hiroshige’s profound influence on Marston’s style. Side-by side comparisons of the two seem to bear this out.

On the left, Marston’s Under the Shadow of Erebus; on the right, Hiroshige’s Mount Fuji Viewed from Inlet.

On the left, Marston’s Each Sheltered Under One of the Novel Umbrellas; on the right, Hiroshige’s Shono from the 53 Stations of the Tokaido. Marston’s reverence for the ukiyo-e master was shared by many European artists of the time, notably the French Impressionists such as Monet, and Van Gogh who copied two of Hiroshige’s prints that he owned.

Aurora Australis was not offered for sale to the general public; all the copies were privately distributed among friends and benefactors. The small edition size prevented wide readership until the first facsimile edition was published in 1986 — minus the wooden boards. Today the entire book can be accessed online page by page at the State Library of New South Wales site.


Filed under: Antarctic History and Exploration,Aurora Australis Book,McMurdo — mbartalos @ 11:09 pm

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