Emailing Antarctica: drawing a response to emails from the ice shelf

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Edition of 25 handmade boxes with 95 prints wrapped in cloth, with a limited edition book, each edition signed and numbered by the artists

Joan and Neville Gabie


Introduction extracted from the boxset:


Emailing Antarctica: drawing a response to emails from the ice shelf

I am delighted that a project with Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum provided the impetus to publish this very special box set.

Early in 2011 the Art Gallery & Museum heard we had been successful in an application for New Expressions 2’s programme of artists’ commissions supported by MLA Renaissance South West and the National Lottery through Grants for the Arts. We wanted to develop a project inspired by our Antarctic collections based around our small gallery dedicated to Cheltenham-born Dr Edward Wilson and extensive Wilson Family Archive. Wilson was a leading member of Captain Scott’s two National Antarctic Expeditions, dying with Scott following their journey to the South Pole in 1912. It seemed appropriate to mark the centenary by adding a significant commissioned work to our collections.

Neville Gabie had been to Antarctica in 2008-9 as part of the British Antarctic Survey/Arts Council England Artists in Antarctica programme and we approached him about the project. He was very interested, especially as he had not shown his Antarctic work in a final form. However one aspect of the collection particularly excited him and his wife Joan. This was the Wilson Family Archive, which includes letters and scrapbooks belonging to Ida Wilson (Edward’s sister) providing an intriguing picture of how people, and in particular Wilson’s family, back in Cheltenham viewed the expedition. It was agreed that while Neville was away he would send Joan a daily email about what he was thinking and experiencing and she would respond with a drawing. The drawings produced sometimes respond to the emails, sometimes take an entirely different tack and sometimes are much more concerned with domestic life back at home. With their potential for mismatching, and awareness of the distance between them these seemed to link to some of the material in the archive and in particular an especially poignant letter and telegram. The letter is an almost complete transcript of the penultimate letter of Edward Wilson to his wife, Oriana, written in March 1912. Wilson writes:

Life has been a struggle for some weeks now on this return journey from the Pole….Today may be the last effort. Birdie and I are going to try and reach the depot 11 miles North of us and return to this tent where Capt Scott is lying with a frozen foot… Our effort today is rather a forlorn hope but I hope this will reach you … I look forward to meeting you after this life is over. I shall simply fall and go to sleep in the snow and I have your little books with me in my breast pocket ….

The telegram also from Oriana, who was staying in New Zealand, gives the latest news of her husband from the Polar Plateau. It is dated 3 April 1912, when Edward had in fact been dead for a month.

Neville and Joan visited to see the collection, the key documents of which filled our vast conference room tables, even we were surprised at how much there is seen en masse. Fairly soon they decided that the best way to present the work would be in some form of limited-edition box set. This is published in two volumes, deliberately to maintain a space between the text and the images, and thus to preserve the distance between them when the work was made.

The work is largely in monochrome and this and Joan’s bold washes and energetic drawing contrast with the colour and precise detail of Wilson’s own. So as Neville describes ‘bruised and purple clouds’ Joan’s bold black watery strokes and drips create the landscape described with powerful economy. Her scenes of an imagined Antarctic contrast with those of life back home with their seemingly small domestic dramas and witty depictions of the everyday.

Neville does not think of himself as a writer but his descriptions of both his surroundings and his feelings enticingly draw the reader in. His words echo the interior landscape described by those who go to the Antarctic: thoughts of family, love, and, most of all, mortality.

Do I feel scared by my vulnerability? No but I am far more aware of mortality and conscious of something much greater than myself and I am comforted by that. What was is it the Bible says – to be ‘in the world but not of it’.

The boxset was shown with an exhibition of the work at the Gardens Gallery, Cheltenham, 17–27 March 2012.


Helen Brown

Collections Manager and Curator of Fine Art

Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum