Dr, EDWARD WILSON – EXPLORER, NATURALIST, ARTIST.

25 Jun

At Cape Adare in Antarctica, a New Zealand Antarctic Conservationist has unexpectedly found a watercolour, painted by Edward Wilson nearly 120 years ago.
Wilson came from an artistic family; he was an instinctive artist from early childhood. His mother Mary Agnes, who taught her son the rudiments of drawing, was a cousin of the artist Frederick William Yeames (A.R.A.), known particularly for the painting ‘And When Did You Last See Your Father? the painting depicting a small Royalist boy being interrogated by Cromwellians in the reign of Charles I,
As a child Wilson wanted to be a naturalist. A dayboy in Cheltenham College, he spent hours and hours at a farm leased by his mother, observing, recording and sketching its teeming profusion of wildlife – he had a famously quick eye for spotting the small inhabitants of hedgerows and became a remarkable field naturalist.
He studied medicine; initially at Cambridge for preclinical work, followed by clinical training at St George’s Hospital London. Throughout, his interest in art continued. He was a follower of Ruskin, England’s greatest art critic and later he greatly admired Turner who, Ruskin wrote, represented nature with an accuracy that made him unique.
His artistic ability was recognised and appreciated when he was in St George’s; he drew hospital pathological specimens for publication in ‘The Lancet’, he was given the rare privilege of unrestricted entry to the Zoological Society grounds, his drawings of fellow students were cherished.
He was always a keen ornithologist–it was said that he could not only recognise each bird song, but identify what that bird was doing as it sang! He received advice from established bird artists and illustrated ornithological publications, here his aim was to make his bird pictures lifelike – he hated paintings of stuffed birds. ‘No one would think of painting preserved flowers –why on earth do they paint preserved birds?’
Near the end of his medical training he became ill with a chest complaint thought to be tuberculosis. Amazingly, in those days patients were not necessarily isolated and initially he went to a house party in Norway where he continued painting. His symptoms persisted and he was sent to a Spa in Davos (where patients without a temperature sat at communal tables, no doubt passing their germs nicely around)! and it is here in 1899, that it is thought that he painted the image found at Cape Adare, a dead Tree Creeper (a European woodland bird). The painting had the initial T on it.
Josefin Bergmark-Jimenez the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust conservationist, who found the painting, was reported as being unable to stop looking at it, she was thrilled by its vibrancy. But the provenance of the painting was not immediately clear until Bergmark-Jimenez attended a lecture on Wilson in Canterbury University, when she immediately recognised Wilson’s authorship. This may well have been the lecture I gave at Canterbury University on the 8th March 2017! I do hope so!
Apart from naturalist subjects, Wilson was an ‘exploration’ artist. ’The Discovery’ expedition of 1901 was probably the last expedition where artistry was the main method of producing accurate records of the previously unknown continent and Wilson made extensive drawings and paintings of the Antarctic interior He had accurate colour recall, never using a colour grid and when Scott checked the distances shown in his paintings, he found them to be astonishingly accurate. When ‘Discovery’ reached England Wilson’s exhibited paintings were viewed by thousands of visitors fascinated to learn about the unknown continent.
Wilson was, undoubtedly, one of the most outstanding artists to have worked in the Antarctic.

New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust

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