Edward Wilson: The Artist
Dr Edward Adrian Wilson, Artist
Edward Adrian Wilson was born in Cheltenham on 23 July 1872, the son of a local physician. He was educated at Cheltenham College, and at Cambridge University, where he graduated in Natural Science and Medicine in 1894. He continued his medical studies in London and qualified as a doctor in 1901.
Wilson’s medical and scientific skills were matched by his artistic talent. It was this combination that led to his appointment, in 1901, as second medical officer, vertebrate zoologist and artist on Captain Scott’s National Antarctic Expedition, which set sail in the Discovery in August 1901.
During the expedition, Wilson undertook important scientific work and began to create the superb series of Antarctic drawings and watercolours that are his main artistic achievement.
This picture gallery shows Dr Edward Wilson’s life through his own artwork. All the images are held by The Wilson; most are part of the Wilson Family Collection.
A child learning to draw
Edward Wilson, the Antarctic explorer, was the last of the great expedition artists. He was also a fine artist in his own right. He was born in Cheltenham and from an early age liked to draw. His father noted that ‘he never tires of drawing ..soldiers, funny little figures full of action and all his own, for he disdains the idea of copying anything’. His mother bought him his first and only formal drawing lessons when he was still a young child. Remarkably his only other training was through art classes at Cheltenham College. He yearned for further training for many years.
Inspiration from Cheltenham
The College taught excellent drawing skills as many students would become army officers and surgeons, both professions requiring accurate recording skills. His father’s passion for nature also fuelled Wilson’s own interest in the natural world. In his view there was no substitute for observing birds and animals in their natural environment. He used to spend many hours on the hills around Cheltenham, particularly at The Crippetts in Leckhampton, just listening and looking. He said he felt so close to nature he could hear a bird’s heartbeat!
Wilson wanted to depict animals and birds from life which was not the fashion at the time. Some of his work is drawn from dead specimens but as his skills developed he concentrated on portraying living creatures and plants. His scrapbooks known as the Nature Notebooks show this change in style very clearly. The skills he taught himself in Britain and later in Norway were to stand him in good stead when he was confronted with depicting the Antarctic.
Most of this early work is in pencil and ink but as he developed his techniques he used watercolours more. His colour sense was extraordinary, and seen at its finest in the images he painted in the Antarctic. Here the subtle changing colours of the skies are a challenge to capture but Wilson has left us with extraordinarily atmospheric scenes. The viewer is invited right into the landscape without having to experience sub zero temperatures!
Wilson had special strategies to work in the cold. He used pencils best suited to the conditions, only sketched for a few minutes at a time, and usually in thick gloves to avoid getting frostbite but his main tool was a well developed colour memory. He honed this, developing his own special note system, when he was in Norway convalescing from Tuberculosis. He had no idea then that he would be going to the Antarctic but his self taught method proved invaluable. He could make a rough sketch with notes and paint the final picture back in the expedition hut.
Painting snow and ice
Wilson was also practised in painting snow and ice. . After his time in Norway he went to Davos in Switzerland for a spell at a specialist sanatorium. Here he was frustrated by the prescribed regimen than prevented him going outdoors so he whiled away some of the time by painting the different colours of snow he could see out of the window. He became interested in the blurring of colour boundaries in nature, delighting in finding colours that that people often said could not be there. He also read books by Ruskin and St Francis of Assisi – both of whom had a profound influence on this thinking and his artwork.
Wilson’s painting ethos
One thing Wilson would not willingly do was to sell his artwork as he considered painting an almost spiritual experience. He was more than happy to record the Antarctic landscape for The British Antarctic Expedition (The Discovery 1901 – 1904) but found the subsequent fundraising exhibition at the Bruton Galleries in London very hard, as he was obliged to paint copies of his works. He preferred to see every drawing as a unique discovery. And he never stopped. Wherever he was he was always sketching. He was even sketching at the South Pole in 1912 when he and his fellow explorers Scott, Bowers, Evans and Oates, arrived to find that Amundsen had beaten them to it!
A toy soldier, sketched when Wilson was 5
A Blue Tit painted when Wilson was young
SA Wren, pencil sketch 1886
Long Tump from The Crippetts, pencil drawing August 1891
Cheltenham from The Crippetts, watercolour painting 1895
Gloucester from Crickley Hill, watercolour painting 1891 – 95
A primrose at The Crippetts, watercolour painting 1896
A Kite, watercolour painting, 1896
A Wasps Nest at the The Crippetts, watercolour paintings with annotations 1896
A cave in the Ross Ice Barrier, watercolour painting 1901 – 1904
Discovery Winter Quarters, watercolour painting 1904
Two Emperor Penguins, watercolour painting 1904
Feet of an Emperor Penguin chick, watercolour painting 1903
An Iceberg off Cape Evans, watercolour painting 1911
Looking west from Hut Point, watercolour painting 1911