National Gallery: Antarctica

First sighted in 1820, for much of human history Antarctica has been an abstract idea.

Antarctica is not a nation, nor, for most of recorded history, has it been a geographical certainty. The concept of Terra Australis, or ‘South Land’, originates in antiquity, though a torrid zone – too hot for human habitation – was thought to separate it from the northern hemisphere. After the first recorded sighting of Antarctica in 1820, humans were able to confront the coldest, driest and windiest continent on earth in a period of exploration that became known as the ‘Heroic Age’. Spanning the first two decades of the 20th century, its best known event is the ‘Race to the Pole’, won in 1911 and reported with the nationalistic sentiments of its time. As well as feats of endurance, the discovery of Antarctica has also yielded significant scientific discoveries.


Birds' Paradise

Aptenodytes Antarctica, John Frederick Miller, 1796.

The ice sheet which covers 98 per cent of Antarctica’s landmass began to form around 34 million years ago. Before this, Antarctica had a warmer climate in which flora flourished. In 2014, fossil discoveries suggested that, 37 to 40 million years ago, ‘colossal’ penguins, perhaps two metres tall, were among its inhabitants, dwarfing the emperor penguins which now inhabit the Antarctic coast. No pictures of such an animal exist: this painting is based on sketches made on James Cook’s 1773 voyage.


Human Scale

Four members of the Shackleton mission on the summit of Mount Erebus, British Antarctic Expedition, 1907-09.

Antarctica has no indigenous human population. ‘Great God! this is an awful place’, wrote the British explorer Robert Falcon Scott after reaching the South Pole in 1912. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who recorded Scott’s expedition in The Worst Journey in the World (1922), looked with pity at the most abundant of the continent’s indigenous extremophile species: ‘Take it all in all, I do not believe anybody on Earth has it worse than an Emperor penguin.’


Abstract Ideas

Antarctica, Frank Phelan, 20th century.

The following four illustrations depict Antarctica as it has been for much of human history: an abstract idea. As Elizabeth Leane writes in Antarctica in Fiction, artistic representations of the continent have been hampered by lack of access while, after the continent’s discovery in 1820, ‘the only literary and artistic mode equipped to handle its abstract, minimal, conceptual landscape – modernism – had its attention focused elsewhere’. Beyond language, Antarctica has inspired soundscapes too, as with Windy & Carl’s 1997 eponymous ambient record.



Tupinambá cannibal tribe in Brazil, engraving from Les singularitez de la France antarctique, André Thevet, 1558.

The word Antarktikos, roughly ‘opposite to the north’, is often dubiously attributed to Aristotle. Variations on ‘Antarctica’ have been applied to southern lands including, between 1555 and 1567, France Antarctique, a short-lived French colony in what is now Rio di Janeiro.


On Balance

Zones of Earth from Macrobius’ Commentary on The Dream of Scipio, 12th-century manuscript.

The ancient Greeks invented the concept  of southern hemispheric balancing lands known as the Antipodes, even if they did not believe in them. This rendering of a fifth-century map by the Roman philosopher Macrobius shows the Earth separated into five climate zones with frigida – frozen air – at the poles.


Blank Page

Cover design for Seddon Johnson’s South Pole Sabotage, 1989.

Fictional travel to Antarctica long predates its reality. Joseph Hall’s 1605 satirical novel Mundus Alter et Idem has been identified as the first example of a rich, speculative genre that, for obvious reasons, reflects its authors’ preoccupations far more readily than Antarctic realities. Pre-20th-century authors, lured by the open possibilities of an Antarctic setting, have been free to ‘choose their own adventure’. 


First Sight

Photograph taken during the voyage of HMS Challenger, 1872-76

James Cook crossed the Antarctic Circle in 1773, but remained around 150 miles from the landmass. In 1820 a Russian expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen was among several claiming to be the first to see the ice shelf. This photo was taken on the Challenger expedition. Like Cook, it sailed close but did not sight the continent itself; unlike Cook, Challenger carried an official photographer. 


Bloody Waters

The deck of the Japanese vessel Nisshin Maru, stained from the butchering of a whale, 5 January 2014.

Curiosity was not the only thing driving explorers south; after Cook’s voyage reported the presence of fur seals, intensive sealing of the Antarctic region began in the early 19th century. The first whaling station was built on South Georgia in 1904. Whale and seal numbers were decimated.


Soft Power

Russian Orthodox Church, King George Island, 2008.

Visiting in 2016, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church opined that ‘Antarctica is the only place free from weapons [or] military activity.’ Agreed in 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was the first arms control agreement of the Cold War, yet the continent is not untouched by nationalist concerns. Seven countries have rival territorial claims and many others – including Russia – maintain a presence.



South Polar Chart, 1901.

John Davis, an American sealer, claimed to be the first person to set foot on Antarctica on 7 February 1821. Only 74 years later did the first undisputed human presence arrive on the continent with the Norwegian ship Antarctic, on 24 January 1895. Since then, human interaction with the great white expanse has been driven by scientific research, an agreement ratified by the Antarctic Treaty of 1959: ‘Scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available.’ In 1985, British scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica, linked to the emission of CFCs, covering almost the entire continent. Research in 2015 suggests the depleted ozone layer is healing. 


Sweet Victory

Roald Amundsen’s expedition reaching  the South Pole in 1911, trading card.

The race to the South Pole between parties led by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott is among the best-known stories of the ‘Heroic Age’ of Antarctic exploration. Less well known is that a third, Japanese, party, led by Shirase Nobu, also participated in the race. Amundsen was first to the pole on 14 December 1911, with Scott arriving on 17 January 1912. 


Cold as the Grave

The tomb of Robert Falcon Scott, Edward Adrian Wilson and Henry R. Bowers, 1912.

Here, a more sombre vision of the so-called ‘Heroic Age’. Arriving at the South Pole five weeks after Amundsen and discovering his defeat, Scott wrote in his journal that ‘the worst has happened’. He was mistaken: he and his team    perished on their return journey. Pictured here is the last camp – and tomb – of the final three members of Scott’s party.  In 2001 it was estimated that, due to glacial movements, the tent and the bodies are likely to be under 75 feet of ice and 30 miles from their original location. 


Breaking Ice

Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker steering through pack ice in the Ross Sea.

A commonly expressed sentiment by those who have visited Antarctica is the difficulty of describing the experience of being there. This may become a more common complaint: around 40 companies now run cruises to the continent with 38,478 people visiting in the 2013/4 season (November–March). Commercial tourism to Antarctica began in the late 1950s; the first boat to specifically carry fare-paying passengers, MS Lindblad Explorer, was built in 1969.