thu 08/12/2016

Captain Scott: South for Science, National Museum Wales | reviews, news & interviews

Captain Scott: South for Science, National Museum Wales

Captain Scott: South for Science, National Museum Wales

Centenary exhibition highlights the Welsh flavour to Captain Scott's Terra Nova expedition

The survivors' signatures: the men who came back to Cardiff on the Terra Nova

In a year of centenary celebrations paying homage to Captain Scott and the men who accompanied him to Antarctica at the end of the Edwardian age, two exhibitions in London have assumed pride of place. The Natural History Museum places a spotlight on the scientific achievements of the Terra Nova expedition. At the Queen’s Gallery two photographic archives capture with remarkable immediacy the sheer splendour of the polar regions. A smaller exhibition in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff focuses on a less familiar aspect of the iconic story: the fact that Scott’s expedition had a strong Welsh flavour.

It began when the young naval officer by the name of E.R.G.R. “Teddy” Evans sought adventure and – no doubt – advancement in the south. Assuming him to be Welsh, William Davies, the editor of the Western Mail, put his support behind Evans. When Captain Scott announced that he would be returning to Antarctica – having first travelled there on the Discovery Expedition (1901-4), succeeded by Shackleton’s almost glorious Nimrod expedition (1907-9) – Lieutenant Evans joined as his second-in-command, but carried Welsh support with him: the shipowners Daniel Radcliffe and William Tatum made significant funding contributions, as did the Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George, who stumped up £20,000.

In honour of the Welsh contribution, Captain Scott made Cardiff the home port of the expedition, while Crown Patent Fuel, bowderlised blocks of coal, were supplied in easily stored chunks to fire the ship’s furnaces. A sample of it (pictured right) sits somewhat incongruously in a display case. The city made an impression on Scott’s men. “I don’t think we will ever forget Cardiff,” wrote Teddy Evans on 17 June 1910, the day of departure, in a letter which bears the signatures of several men whose names would go down in polar history - including Birdie Bowers and Edward Wilson. Some of Wilson’s pretty water colours of the southern continent are on display here, but his and Bowers’ names are poignantly absent from the card signed by the party of polar explorers returning to Cardiff three years later. The Terra Nova, stirring images of whose departure are also on display (pictured below), was met on the same dockside by the widowed Lady Scott three years later.

Among the showpiece treasures in this small but well constructed exhibition is the prow of the Terra Nova, a virgin white figurine which ploughed through such dismal seas. But another facet of the expedition’s Welshness is explored too. One of the five men who made it to the South Pole was another Evans, this time a genuinely Welsh one: Petty Officer Edgar “Taff” Evans came from Rhossili, a small village on the promontory at the end of the Gower Peninsula, and dreamed of making his second trip south with Scott the springboard to launch himself as a publican. Scott had undimmed respect for his brute strength, but alas the only non-officer was the first to die on the way back from the South Pole, probably suffering from concussion as he lay down in the snow and made pathetic noises about catching up with the others. It's not on display here, but there is a memorial to Evans elsewhere in Wales.

Should you find yourself in Rhossili, it’s worth visiting the church where a plaque pays tribute to the forgotten fifth man who went to the Pole 100 years ago. Rather closer to the National Museum there is another permanent memorial to Scott’s Welsh connection. It's next door in the city hall, in fact, in Cathays Park, that impressive set of municipal buildings which testify to Victorian confidence in Wales. Halfway up the stairs on the left is a commemorative tablet which was hastily commissioned soon after the Terra Nova docked. The central panel is a portrait of Scott (pictured), but around him are bas reliefs familiar from Antarctic literature: a flag flying at the Pole, the cross over the cairn under which his companion buried Scott, Wilson and Bowers. The then mayor supplies one of the names carved into the monument alongside that of the aforesaid “Dan Radcliffe JP, Hon Treasurer” and the sculptor W. Wheatley-Wagstaff.

At the bottom, rather like a predella panel on an Renaissance altarpiece, is an image of huskies in harness gathered in front of a sledge - rather more peacefully than they ever did on the expedition itself. They are flanked on one side by a seal, on the other by a penguin, perhaps the Welshest thing of all on the southern continent. It has never been finally established, but there must have been a Welshman on the first ever trip to sail among these strange flightless birds. Penguin can also be written pen gwyn, which is Welsh for “white head”.

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