All alone on page 313 of this spectacular book, a tattered but heroic flag flies in a painting of an icy wasteland. It is a remarkable picture for two reasons: first, because it was done by the Arctic explorer Edmund Wilson in 1912, when he and Captain Scott learnt from that very flag that the Norwegian Amundsen had reached the South Pole before them; and second, because it is a hauntingly beautiful work of art.
For this collection of paintings, drawings, notebooks and diary pages of travelling action by men and women down the centuries astonishingly illustrates how talented they often were — not just in reaching (or not reaching) the South Pole, or exploring wastelands, or climbing frightful mountains, or identifying new insects and hitherto unsuspected varieties of humans, but in recording their emotions in doing so. It was not just a historical event that Wilson was commemorating that day in 1912, but a moment of tragic disappointment, and he perpetuated it in high art.
Like almost all of them, he was not a professional artist, but perhaps the intensity of the experiences these adventurers went through brought out the muse in them. Of course the scientists, botanists and zoologists among them were often trained to draw, like naval officers of the day, but many more, it seems, simply pictured what they saw and did out of dedicated fascination. Astonishment, humour, pity and a plain sense of history constantly enter their notes and diaries, and make this collection of their mementoes wonderfully rewarding.
How beautifully did many of them commemorate, in particular, the living world they were discovering: elegant, strange fish, complex crabs, gorgeous plants, endearing frogs, improbable crocodiles and a speckle-headed goose! Here, in 1705, Maria Merian introduces us to a toad carrying a host of hatchlings on its back; and here, in 1878, Marianne North portrays an Indian courtyard full of hunting cheetahs and lynxes, each with its own keeper. Some of their scholarly illustrations are exquisite — rows of beetles or butterflies or unknown reptiles, an Audubon parakeet, a falcon from an Egyptian tomb (meticulously copied, in brilliant colour, by Howard Carter himself) or a white rhino from the notebook of John Hanning Speke, the Nile explorer.
Inevitably, I suppose, it is vistas that most often inspired them. They were often true explorers, in places totally unknown to them, or mountaineers reconnoitring new routes, and many of them had excellent eyes for a countryside. Robert Macfarlane, who writes a perfect short introduction to this book, says he is most moved by the 19th-century painting of an Arctic iceberg by Franz Boas, which has a lyrically suggestive vista through the middle of it. I like the many landscape pictures best, though, from splendid exploratory narratives to grand vistas from the age of the picturesque, and into our own time.
They vary as remarkably in style as in content. In the 1920s the Russian mystic Nicholas Roerich was painting marvellous near-Impressionist portraits of the Himalayas (where he died and was buried). In the 1850s John Turnbull Thomson entertainingly pictured climbing difficulties in the New Zealand Alps (he was the country’s first surveyor-general). John Linton Palmer, a Victorian naval surgeon, depicted his voyages in hundreds of delicate water-colours from Chile to Easter Island, and one of the most delightful scenes in the whole book shows intrepid mountaineers merrily glissading on their bums down a slope of Mont Blanc, courtesy of John Auldjo (1805–1886).
One astonishing picture, beyond all genres, perhaps sums up the mingled messages of the book. It was painted (if that’s the word) by the German scientist Alexander von Humbolt, described by Darwin himself as ‘the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived’, and it is a kind of cutaway portrait of Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador. Depicted in the most intricate detail, with a plume of volcanic smoke, drifting clouds here and there and a trail of cumuli across the top, the mass of the mountain consists of a meticulous register of the types of plants that could be found at different altitudes there — hundreds of them in tiny characters, making the whole thing not just a delightful caprice, but a serious work of reference too.
But there, I could go on and on. Explorers’ Sketchbooks is such a mass of analysis and allusion, a pictorial treasure-box of such mingled content, that it defies brief criticism. Enough for this somewhat dazed reviewer to say thank you to so many contributors, dead or alive, celebrated or long forgotten, for a unique imaginative experience.