This week for Artist Introductions, I thought I’d write about George Marston. Born in Portsmouth, UK, in 1882, he is remembered above all as the artist onboard Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition from 1914 – 1917. Previously, he had also accompanied Shackleton on the Nimrod Expedition, which took place from 1907 – 1909 (this was Shackleton’s unsuccessful attempt to be the first to reach Antarctica, only getting within 97.5 nautical miles of the pole – he was beaten in 1912 by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen).
For explorers in the early twentieth century, it was all about breaking records. Seeing as Shackleton had fallen short of his original goal, the Trans-Antarctic Expedition aimed to cross Antarctica from sea to sea (read more about Shackleton and his adventures – he was a pretty interesting guy).
The journey is famous for disaster – the ship, Endurance, was crushed by polar ice before it reached the Antarctic mainland. The crew escaped and managed to camp on disintegrating sea ice. Eventually, they used a lifeboat known as the James Caird to travel to Elephant Island, an Antarctic ice mass located in the South Shetland Islands archipelago. As the lifeboat also began to disintegrate, Marston donated his oil paints to ‘caulk’ or patch up the boat, enabling the crew to eventually reach the closest inhabited island of South Georgia – 779 long and freezing miles away. Incredibly, everyone survived.
It is a brilliant tale of adventure and survival, and Marston provides us with an amazing visual insight into the expedition’s rugged and unforgiving backdrop. Due to his otherwise engaged oil paints, Marston completed his paintings upon his return to England, working from sketches. His oil on board paintings offer a valuable insight into the weather, topography, and equipment used during the expedition. His colour palette is predictably cool, but he also uses surprising warm tones to contrast the icy wasteland in paintings such as ‘Antarctic Sea and Landscape’.
Side note: as I was eagerly telling my dad all about Marston’s expedition, he asked me why the oil paint wouldn’t freeze in arctic temperatures. I did some Googling, and as far as I can tell, the linseed oil usually used in oil paint would freeze anywhere below -20°C. The average temperate in Antarctica is -57°C. So, the answer to my dad is: I have absolutely no idea how Marston’s oil paint did not simply freeze. If anyone would like to get in touch and let me know why, my dad and I would be very grateful!
I have selected a few of my favourite Marston paintings to give a sense of his work and the expeditions – I hope having a bit of background helps you to enjoy and appreciate his work even more.