Edward Wilson’s ground-breaking watercolours

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Polar explorer, scientist and naturalist, Dr Edward Wilson was one of the most prominent figures of early Antarctic exploration. He was also an accomplished painter and illustrator.

In this video Dr David Wilson, polar historian and great-nephew of Edward Wilson, discusses how the extraordinary artistic talents of his great-uncle supported scientific research and helped to define modern wildlife painting.

Why was Wilson’s art so important?

A self-taught and highly-regarded field naturalist, Wilson was Chief of the Scientific Staff on the Terra Nova expedition

He specialised in birds and was particularly interested in emperor penguins. However, one of his biggest contributions to Antarctic expeditions was his skill at illustrating and painting wildlife.

Page from Edward Wilson's Terra Nova expedition field notebook

Page from Edward Wilson's Terra Nova expedition notebook. Wilson sketched his subjects in the field before painting them back at the expedition hut.

At this time, plants and animals were often collected and preserved before being recorded in illustrations. Wilson thought it very important to capture the true nature of wildlife and so sketched his subjects live in the field whenever possible. He would then complete the sketches back at the expedition hut with almost perfect colour recall.

It was this ability to accurately capture nature as it is in life that helped to define modern wildlife painting. 

Wilson's illustrations have real scientific value, and many were reproduced in the reports publishing the expedition's scientific results. 

Beloved Uncle Bill

Wilson, affectionately nicknamed ‘Uncle Bill’ by the men on his last expedition, was highly regarded by his peers and was probably Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s closest comrade. Scott wrote, ‘Words must always fail me when I talk of Bill Wilson. I believe he really is the finest character I ever met.’

He took part in 2 British expeditions to Antarctica but tragically died alongside Captain Scott and Lieutenant Henry Bowers on their return journey from the South Pole in 1912.