Friday, December 27th, 2013...9:30 am
All seal hunting and no letterpress printing makes Jack a dull boy
In 1908, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his British Polar Expedition made publication history: they created the first book ever produced on the continent of Antarctica.
Produced “at the Sign of the Penguins” while the team overwintered at Cape Royds before attempting the South Pole, Aurora Australis consists of about one hundred and twenty unnumbered loose sheets laced in wooden covers and bound in seal skin.
Its ten pieces of writing make up a serious anthology with surprising literary merit. There is a poem by Shackleton, attributed to Nemo in the table of contents and to Veritas at the end of the text (this poem is also signed “Veritas” in some copies).
Petty officer Frank Wild, under the pseudonym Wand Erer, wrote an essay in the style of the King James Bible.
And there is a fanciful short story by geologist Douglas Mawson, “Bathybia,” proposing that the South Pole, still unseen in 1908, might in fact be a deep crater filled with giant insects and luxuriant plant life, including a forest of toadstools into which an unsuspecting polar explorer might tumble.
Immediately before the expedition set sail in 1907, Wild and another petty officer, Ernest Joyce, took a crash course in typesetting and letterpress printing. A traditional seven-year apprenticeship was compressed into three weeks’ intense training by the renowned London firm of Sir Joseph Causton and Sons Ltd., who equipped Shackleton with a miniature printing plant: two presses (a 10′ x 7′ Albion and a small etching press, labelled “printing machine” and “printing press” in the hut plan below), high-quality handmade paper with handsome deckle edges and a generous supply of ink.
The ingenuity of Aurora Australis is apparent in Shackleton’s clever scheme to furnish the book with covers by repurposing the crates in which the team’s perishables had been imported from Europe and New Zealand.
Aurora Australis is richly illustrated with etchings and watercolors by the expedition’s official artist, George “Putty” Marston. These depict daily life in close quarters as well as the natural wonders of the antarctic landscape.
Marston’s style is spare and somewhat workmanlike. When he used color he did so flamboyantly, as in this frontispiece showing the southern lights of the book’s title.
Marston also created the book’s design. It is a pleasure to read and features suitably vast expanses of blank white space.
In The Heart of the Antarctic, Being the Story of the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909, Shackleton tells of two purposes behind Aurora Australis: to create a unique record of the moments before his first ascent of the South Pole plateau (this mission was not quite achieved, in part because the expedition had insufficient food and no skis), and as one of many cultural activities intended to keep the men occupied for four long, cold, dark months.
From Shackleton’s description, the print shop in the hut at Cape Royds sounds like a constant source of fascination and frustration: Joyce and Wild were inexperienced, the ink froze, the plates were sensitive to the salt in the water and of course the hut was very cramped and dark.
Those overwintering in Antarctica today must still labor to fend off “polar ennui.” The U.S. Antarctic Program Participant Guide, 2013-2014 promises “radio programming from volunteer DJs, a library, clubs, climbing wall, gymnasium, weight room, aerobics room, art shows, chili cook-offs, running races, yoga classes, dances, league play, lessons, lectures, etc.”
Copies of Aurora Australis are not numbered. It is believed that no more than a hundred were manufactured, possibly intended for sale but in the end distributed as gifts to the expedition’s friends and financial supporters. There was no institutional or governmental support for the British Polar Expedition; Shackleton was entirely reliant on private loans and gifts and returned to England with heavy debts.
The seventy or so copies whose present whereabouts are known can be identified by the words stencilled on their boards, as the packing crates could be cut, cleaned and polished but were indelibly stamped with their original labels: there are Petit Pois, Stewed Kidneys and Chocolate copies, for example.
Houghton’s Aurora Australis is stencilled “[J & T B]AYLEY Ltd [Exp]ORT [Pac]KERS [Lon]DON E C” on the inside front board, and “[Brit]ISH [Antar]CTIC [Exped]ITION 07 on the inside back board. It was a gift of Donald McKay Frost (1877-1958), a Back Bay attorney and noted book collector with a strong interest in the history and settlement of western America. The Houghton collections also contain a copy of the Julienne Soup facsimile.
[Thanks to Christina Linklater, Project Music Cataloger, for contributing this post.]