LONDON - An unparalleled archive of shipwreck images will be presented for sale at Sotheby’s London auction on 12th November 2013. Taken by four generations of the Gibson family of photographers over nearly 130 years, the 1000 negatives record the wrecks of over 200 ships and the fate of their passengers, crew and cargo as they travelled from across the world through the notoriously treacherous seas around Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly between 1869 and 1997. Such is the power and allure of the Gibson’s photographs that these images have captured the imagination of some of the UK’s most celebrated authors.
At the very forefront of early photojournalism, John Gibson and his descendants were determined to be first on the scene when these shipwrecks struck. Each and every wreck had its own story to tell with unfolding drama, heroics, tragedies and triumphs to be photographed and recorded – the news of which the Gibsons would disseminate to the British mainland and beyond. The original handwritten eye-witness accounts as recorded by Alexander and Herbert Gibson in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries will be sold alongside these images. The archive will be sold as a single lot in Sotheby’s Travel, Atlases, Maps and Natural History sale, and is estimated to achieve between £100,000 and £150,000.
‘This is the greatest archive of the drama and mechanics of shipwreck we will ever see – a thousand images stretching over 130 years, of such power, insight and nostalgia that even the most passive observer cannot fail to feel the excitement or pathos of the events they depict.’ - Rex Cowan, shipwreck hunter and author
‘We are standing in an Aladdin’s cave where the Gibson treasure is stored, and Frank is its keeper. It is half shed, half amateur laboratory, a litter of cluttered shelves, ancient equipment, boxes, printer’s blocks and books. Many hundreds of plates and thousands of photographs are still waiting an inventory. Most have never seen the light of day. Any agent, publisher or accountant would go into free fall at the very sight of them.’ - Author John Le Carré, on visiting the Gibsons of Scilly archive with Frank Gibson in 1997*
THE GIBSON FAMILY
A DYNASTY OF PHOTOGRAPHERS
The Gibson family passion for photography was passed down through an astonishing four generations from John Gibson, who purchased his first camera 150 years ago.
Born in 1827, and a seaman by trade, it is not known how or where John Gibson acquired his first camera at time when photography was typically reserved for the wealthiest in society, however we do know that by 1860 he had established himself as a professional photographer in a studio in Penzance. Returning to the Scillies in 1865, he apprenticed his two sons Alexander and Herbert in the business, forging a personal and professional unity which would be passed down through all the generations which followed. Inseparable from his brother until the end, it is said that Alexander almost threw himself into Herbert’s grave at his funeral in 1937.
The family’s famous shipwreck photography began in 1869, on the historic occasion of the arrival of the first Telegraph on the Isles of Scilly. At a time when it could take a week for word to reach the mainland from the islands, the Telegraph transformed the pace at which news could travel. At the forefront of early photojournalism, John became the islands’ local news correspondent, and Alexander the telegraphist - and it is little surprise that the shipwrecks were often major news. On the occasion of the wreck of the 3500-ton German steamer, Schiller in 1876 when over 300 people died, the two worked together for days – John preparing newspaper reports, and Alexander transmitting them across the world, until he collapsed with exhaustion. Although they often worked in the harshest conditions, travelling with hand carts to reach the shipwrecks - scrambling over treacherous coastline with a portable dark room, carrying glass plates and heavy equipment – they produced some of the most arresting and emotive photographic works of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
‘Other men have taken fine shipwreck photographs, but nowhere else in the world can one family have produced such a consistently high and poetic standard of work’. - Author John Fowles**
THE GIBSONS OF SCILLY SHIPWRECK ARCHIVE
Wrecked on Peninnis Head, St Mary’s, Scillies
January 18th, 1874.
Sailing with a cargo of guano from Argentina to Dublin, the Minnehaha had been travelling for 14 months when the boat struck the rocks following a dispute between the Captain and the Channel pilot. Within two minutes the vessel was almost completely underwater.
While the Captain undressed and leapt into the sea, never to be seen again, nine other crew members found their way safely to shore. Among the other sailors who died was the Channel pilot, whose body washed up near Padstow two months later.
BAY OF PANAMA
Drove into cliffs at Nare Point, near Falmouth
March 10th, 1891.
One of the most famous and notorious of all Cornish wrecks, this exceptionally fine ship was carrying jute from Calcutta when, caught in a blizzard, she went headlong into the cliffs.
A monstrous wave swept nine overboard including the captain and his wife, while another six froze to death overnight. The boatswain went mad and jumped into the sea. 17 of the crew of 40 survived the night.
The horse-drawn omnibus taking the survivors to Falmouth the next day was caught in a snow-drift and they had to finish their journey on foot – some without shoes – an ordeal which was said to be worse than the shipwreck itself.
Ran ashore in Perran Bay, Perranporth
December 28th, 1900.
The construction of this French ‘bounty clipper’, was subsidised by the French government to allow it to be built for elegance rather than for more mundane qualities.
Travelling from Iquique, Chile, to Falmouth with a cargo of saltpetre, in one of the worst storms seen in 20 years the crew were forced to abandon the ship in heavy seas.
By the morning the celebrated barque was a total wreck on the beach and was later sold for just £42.
THE GIBSONS OF SCILLY SHIPWRECK ARCHIVE
Hit Newfoundland Point, St Mary’s
26th March, 1997
Containing a cargo of some 200 containers holding car tyres, computer mice and ladies’s shorts, the Cita’s hull was pierced after the watch-keeping officer allegedly fell asleep.
The mainly Polish crew were rescued by the St. Mary’s lifeboat, and the wreck stayed visible for several days before eventually sliding beneath the surface. While containers washed up as far as Cornwall, extra police reinforcements were enlisted from the mainland to deter looters.
Went aground near Lowland Point
Containing a valuable consignment of grand pianos and over a thousand cases and barrels of spirits, the Glenbervie was travelling from St Lawrence, Canada.
The crew were saved in heavy seas by the Coverack lifeboat.
THE JEANNE GOUGY
Ran ashore at Gamper Bay, Land’s End
3rd November, 1962.
Sailing from Waterford, this French Trawler ran aground shortly after 5am, having travelled in rough weather all of the way.
Two men were rescued immediately, and, amazingly, seven hours later six other men were found alive and taken safely to shore.
*Rex Cowan, A Century of Images, Photographs by the Gibson Family (André Deutsch Limited, 1997) Introduction by John le Carré, p.2
**John Fowles, Shipwreck (Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1974)