At the same time as the Antarctic generates considerable interest in the modern worlds of geo-politics and climate change, earlier exploration of the region has become a notable collecting field – particularly for anything linked with Scott’s ill-fated 1910-13 Terra Nova expedition.
Highlights over the past couple of years include a geologist’s ice axe at £22,000 at Cheffins; a taxidermy Adélie penguin at £10,500 at Sworders and a signed menu of a 1913 dinner honouring returning crew members at £3500 at Stroud Auction Rooms.
So it was with some confidence that Exeter auction house Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood (23% buyer’s premium) offered the collection of the steam yacht Terra Nova’s carpenter Francis Davies (1885-1952). All lots came with a copy of With Scott Before the Mast based on his writing.
Consigned by his descendants, the 79 items had a top estimate of £62,000. Online competition from the US, New Zealand and Europe against room bidders amounted to a contribution of £126,000 to the £211,000 total at the 450-lot October 19 sale.
The primary bids came for two historically important 2ft 3in x 3ft 3in (69cm x 1m) charts. Each was estimated at £5000-6000.
Antarctic Ocean Sheet VIII, detailing voyages around McMurdo Sound, the Bay of Whales and the position of Roald Amundsen’s winter quarters, sold to a London collector at £17,000.
The other, Antarctic Ocean Sheet IV, detailing voyages off South Victoria and noting the dates of entering and leaving the pack ice, 1911-12, went to a New Zealand bidder at £10,500.
The more personal pieces Davies compiled and annotated also had a major impact.
A navy shipwright who signed on with Scott for £40 a year, Davies’ importance to the expedition began before the old vessel set sail, winning a battle against suppliers who had provided too little timber for the huts he was to build on the ice. A stiff note from the firm began the two-page receipt to Scott: “Dear Sir. Below please find list of material sent to the Terra-Nova besides the buildings erected and marked details as taken by your carpenter (Davies).”
Expected to make £600-800, it sold to a Continental collector at £2800 via thesaleroom.com.
Davies’ status in the expedition was higher than his rank, as evidenced in the matter of his pair of hand-made leather snow googles.
He did not like wearing them but snow blindness was a hazard and the ship’s commander Lieutenant Harry Pennell told him: “There are lots of navigators in the expedition but only one carpenter.”
Marked in pen with Davies’ name and initials, the goggles were estimated at £400-600 but sold to a collector at £3300.
Pennell countersigned Davies’ 1913 Board of Trade Certificate of Discharge for F E Davies from the Terra Nova (sold to a Continental collector £1500) and remained in regular correspondence with him.
A lot comprising nine of his letters went to the Continent at £1400 (estimate £400-600). In one, dated February 1914, Pennell wrote: “Do you think of going with Sir E Shackleton? If you are applying to him let me know so that I can write and recommend you.”
Instead, Davies went to war, as did Pennell who was among the 1266 sailors killed when HMS Queen Mary was sunk at Jutland in 1916.
A less formal certificate showed that Davies, lacking paper proof he had crossed the equator many times with the navy, had gone through the traditional shipboard ceremony aboard Terra Nova.
The handmade pen and ink certificate featured the ship’s pennant flanked by a penguin and a whale.
Dated July 15, 1910, it was signed Edward R Evans, the naval lieutenant second-in-command of the expedition. Evans became a wartime destroyer captain, an admiral and a Labour peer although in recent years his behaviour on the Terra Nova has come under heavy criticism. Pitched at £300-500, it sold to a collector at £3000.
Going to New Zealand at a six-times estimate £3500 were two pen, ink and card dioramas made by Davies.
One, 3½in x 7in (9 x 18cm), inscribed to the reverse McMurdo Sound midnight 28th Jan 1911, depicted sledge teams, penguins and the Terra Nova flying naval flags signalling ‘Happy Birthday’. The other, 2¾in x 3in (7 x 7.5cm), showed Terra Nova in ice with smoke erupting from Mount Erebus.
A number of photographs provided more formal images. A framed 9½ x 11½in (24 x 29cm) photo of the crew on Terra Nova, together with a letter from one sending it to the Seaman’s Mission, Lyttleton, was pitched at £500-600 and went to a collector at £3800.
Another collector went further above estimate for a group of three photos of an ice-bound Terra Nova together with a postcard of the ship and photograph of an iceberg. Estimated at £50-80, they sold at £3200.
Scott’s primary aim was to be first to reach the South Pole but scientific research was more than a polite fiction.
Among the research items Terra Nova brought back and became part of Davies’ collection were a Weddell seal pup embryo preserved in a kilner jar which went to New Zealand at £2300 and a 9in (23cm) chunk of lava from Erebus which a London collector took at £1200. Both doubled pre-sale expectations.
Top lot at Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood outside the Davies Antarctic collection was this locket of Napoleon’s hair. It was given by the emperor to his personal guard when exiled on St Helena, as far south as the great man’s travels took him.
Together with an elaborate gilt and enamel Legion d’honneur featuring a central laurel-crowned portrait of Napoleon, it came with manuscript provenance dated July 12, 1818, detailing the emperor’s gift to Major Thomas Poppleton on the South Atlantic island.
Peninsular War veteran Poppleton became close to Napoleon. When the island governor, fearing an escape plot, demanded reports of everything Napoleon said, the major resigned his position rather than become a spy.
Further provenance relating to Poppleton’s gifting the locket to his sister-in-law and passing down generations of her family added to authenticity and, against an estimate of £5000-7000, it sold to a collector over the phone at £13,000.