The painting depicts a white-breasted bird lying on its back, its delicate beak tipped into the air. Labeled simply “Tree-Creeper, March 1899,” it was found in a paper portfolio left on a bunk in one of two historic huts on Cape Adare, a peninsula on the far east side of Antarctica.
Scientists from the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust narrowed down the identity of the artist to someone on one of the two expeditions that used the huts: a 1899 expedition party led by Norwegian explorer Carsten Borchgrevink, or the British expedition headed up by Captain Robert Falcon Scott in 1911. According to a press release from the organization, paper conservator Josefin Bergmark-Jimenez unlocked the mystery by chance, when she attended a lecture at Canterbury University about Dr. Edward Wilson, one of the explorers on Scott’s expedition.
As soon as the presenter showed slides of Wilson’s artwork, Bergmark-Jimenez recognized his distinctive handwriting and his painting style. “I knew he had painted the Tree Creeper,” she said. “This made sense, as there was also a 1911 newspaper article from the Lyttelton Times in the papers and Scott’s party went to Antarctica via New Zealand.”
He may not be as famous today as Scott or Ernest Shackleton, but Edward Wilson was no less of a pioneer in polar exploration. An artist and naturalist as well as a scientist, he was the first medical doctor to reach the South Pole. In Cheltenham, England, where Wilson was born in 1872, he is a revered figure; the city’s art gallery and museum is even called the Wilson.
In 1898, while doing mission work during his medical training, Wilson contracted pulmonary tuberculosis. During his long convalescence, he worked on his artwork, and likely painted the “Tree-Creeper” watercolor during this period. After recovering, Wilson took a dive into the unknown, signing up as assistant surgeon and vertebrate geologist for the British National Antarctic Expedition (1901-04).
During that expedition, Wilson, Scott and Shackleton trekked further south than any other explorer had traveled to that point, reaching a latitude of 82°16’ S before they decided to turn back. Wilson also became the first scientist to get a close look at the breeding habits of Emperor penguins, which at the time were a newly discovered species. On that trip, he collected the first scientific specimens of the penguins and their chicks, drew a series of field sketches and wrote a monograph of the species for the expedition’s scientific report.
One thing Wilson did not come back with was a prized Emperor penguin egg. At the time, scientists believed (incorrectly, as it turned out) that penguins were a more primitive form of bird, and believed that examining one of them in embryo form might yield the missing evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds. So when Captain Scott asked Wilson to be the chief of scientific staff on his next Antarctic trip, Wilson made finding a penguin embryo a main objective of the expedition.
Scott’s 1911-12 expedition to Antarctica aboard the Terra Nova would become known as the “The Worst Journey in the World,” after the title of a famous book written by one of its survivors, Apsley Cherry-Garrard. To get the penguin eggs, Wilson, Cherry-Garrard and a third man (Birdie Bowers) were forced to venture from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier (a 65-mile journey) and back, in the depths of the Antarctic winter.
In November, Scott, Wilson and three other men set out for the South Pole. They reached it in mid-January, only to find that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them there by nearly five weeks. On their return, the men fell victim to exhaustion, extraordinarily bad weather (even for Antarctica) and severe malnutrition. In late March, a blizzard trapped the team’s last surviving members–Wilson, Scott and Bowers–in their tent, still nearly 150 miles from base camp. The last entry in Scott’s diary was dated March 29; a search party found the men’s bodies that November.
How Wilson’s painting of the tree creeper came to be in the hut in Cape Adare remains a mystery. “It’s likely that Wilson painted it while he was recovering from tuberculosis in Europe,” said Lizzie Meek, program manager at the Antarctic Heritage Trust. “Clearly, he could have taken the painting to Antarctica on either of Scott’s expeditions but we think it’s more likely the artwork travelled with him in 1911, and somehow made its way from Cape Evans to Cape Adare.”
Though the painting was discovered back in 2016, the Antarctic Heritage Trust kept it under wraps while they worked on restoring the other 1,500 artifacts recovered from the Cape Adare huts. After the structures are secured, the watercolor and all other artifacts will be returned to the huts, in accordance with the site’s status as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA).