Armchair Exploration… Two Lavishly Illustrated Books

Over the last couple of years I have been a sucker for picking up those gorgeous, coffee-table style oversized books. You know the sort, they’ve been drooled over in bookshops everywhere for a few years. Gorgeous to look at, they often aren’t too heavy on the writing and so can be read quite quickly. Last week I took advantage of spending a few days at home in Cheshire to blaze through a couple. They were:

Voyages of Discovery – Tony Rice (London, 2010).

Explorer’s Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery & Adventure – Huw Lewis-Jones & Kari Herbert (London, 2016).

I’ll deal with them in turn.

#1 Voyages of Discovery

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Voyages of Discovery is a Natural History Museum tie-in book which borrows from the extensive collections of that wonderful museum (it’s free, go and see it if you can, even the building is beautiful).

As the subtitle suggests, the book focuses on ten of the most famous natural history expeditions – including Captain Cook’s first and second voyages, and the voyage of the Beagle  (on which a young Charles Darwin began to form some influential scientific opinions). These all fall roughly between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries in a conscious illustration of what some have called ‘The Age of Exploration’. Each chapter opens with several pages of text consisting of biographies of the explorers and histories of the expeditions but this is all fairly light-touch stuff, as the real focus here is on the gorgeous illustrations that these expeditions produced. The illustrations, with brief captions are given plenty of space on the clear backgrounds of the book’s glossy pages.

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One of Maria Sybellia Marian’s amazing illustrations of the life-cycle of a moth. Source.

Voyages of Discovery is quite clearly an art book, and in that respect it succeeds very well. The illustrations are generally well-selected, very well-presented, and the supporting information provides just enough contextual information for the general reader. It is also commendable that they seek to commemorate the vital work done by the often-unremembered artists that accompanied these expeditions (Darwin was, apparently, a terrible artist). It was the work of these men and women that allowed the world to see the fantastic discoveries that had been made in a pre-photographic age.

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Darwin’s Galapagos Finches. These became the foundational example of natural selection once Darwin belatedly realised that they had all evolved from a common ancestor to fill niches in the ecology of the Galapagos Islands (illustrated the variety in the shape and size of their beaks). These finches were drawn by the ornithologist John Gould (or one of his collaborators including his wife, Elizabeth, and Edward Lear, more famous for his nonsense poems). The Goulds were responsible for popularising many of the images of the Beagle expedition.

Even with its limited text, however, the book shows exploration and discovery to have been the domain of the privileged. Financial privilege allowed so many, like Darwin, to pursue their inquisitiveness. Gender privilege made it easier for men to travel and explore than women. Racial and geographical privilege allowed white Europeans to name, and collate, and control. Indigenous people rarely appear in the pages of this book, and when they do they are fleeting glimpses: a belligerent Maori war canoe retreating from beyond musket range, distant aborigines howling from the rocks. Yet without indigenous cooperation and knowledge, many early explorers would have died unremembered, their bones bleaching on some distant shore.

While it isn’t the job of Voyages of Discovery to tell this story, a little more sensitivity to it would not go amiss. It does nothing to address or dispel the issues above. It’s far too easy when writing the history of science, medicine, or technology to present it as a steady and linear march of progress. In history we’d call this ‘teleological’,or ‘Whiggish’ if we were being old fashioned. It’s the idea that humanity is on a path to constant improvement and it reflects an ideal rather than the messy lived reality.

These concerns aside, as a coffee-table art book, Voyages of Discovery succeeds, and therefore I’ll give it three ‘therefores’ ∴∴∴∴

#2 Explorer’s Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery and Adventure

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Explorer’s Sketchbooks is a love-letter to a medium, and one of the most beautifully-illustrated books I have ever read. Taking as a starting point the importance of  explorer’s sketchbooks and journals, it has a bewildering array of photographs and sketches of tens of prominent explorers. It is gorgeously designed, with pages in landscape like a sketchbook and thick pages sandwiched between two thick cardboard covers. Also seeking to put images front and centre, Explorer’s Sketchbooks usually has a two-page spread with a brief biography of the explorer and then, depending on output, several pages of images thereafter. This isn’t really standardised so the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, who had a diary but clearly didn’t do any nice drawings in it, has just two pages, whereas Titian Ramsey Peele, a relatively obscure explorer of North America who made numerous sketches of Native Americans, gets six. The book is also interspersed with a couple of reflection-pieces from explorers explaining how crucial notebooks remain to the present day.

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Titian Ramsey Peele’s drawings became iconic images of Native American life. Source.

There was inevitably some crossover with Voyages of Discovery, so the book includes artist Sidney Parkinson’s images of Australia from Cook’s first voyage (including the first European image of a Kangaroo), and the amazing work of Meriana Smith among others. Not being wedded to a single collection as Voyages of Discovery was, it offers the opportunity to be a bit more international in its outlook – though once again I was disappointed to see that it was weighted overwhelmingly in the favour of European explorers. The authors specifically try to tackle the ‘silences’ of indigenous people in the historical record here, making clear the essential contributions that they made to expeditions.

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Engraving of Australian Aborigines and a Maori Warrior, by Sidney Parkinson (Cook’s first voyage, 1768-71). Source.

However, in some ways this book has even less of an excuse than Voyages of Discovery. Explorer’s Sketchbooks goes right up to the present day, and features diaries and sketchbooks of several explorers who are still alive (like Ranulph Fiennes). Despite this, there is a single explorer from Asia in the book, one guy. Seriously? Have there been no non-white explorers of note in the last century? Have Africa, Oceania, South America, and most of Asia failed to produce a single explorer’s notebook of note? Even Russia is curiously under-represented, and I know the Soviets will have had plenty of hardy explorers to rival those of the West. Bearing this in mind, it’s hard to understand the process that the authors employed to select the explorers in this book. Once again, as an art book, Explorer’s Notebooks succeeds wonderfully, so I will give it four therefores ∴∴∴∴ However, it would be better to rename this European Explorer’s Sketchbooks to more accurately reflect its content.

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Congratulations Naomi Uemora, on being the non-white explorer considered worthy of inclusion in this book.

If I seem to have laboured the point here in what is ultimately a review of two coffee-table books with lots of pretty pictures in, it’s because there is a sense from the selection of explorers in this book that very little has changed. Exploration is presented as the province of rich white men. In focusing upon these no doubt remarkable and courageous individuals what other perspectives are lost? What local knowledge overlooked or dismissed? In the present day – what achievements have been made by those peoples who so often suffered as a consequence of the earlier European explorations? Which brave and courageous individuals have they produced?  Have there really been none?

The ideal of exploration is one that transcends borders and seeks a universal betterment of humanity through expanded knowledge and individual and collective achievement. With their Eurocentric focus, these books show how shallow that ideal often proves to be.

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