For over a century, a small watercolor painting of a bird was forgotten in an Antarctic hut. Due to a crusty concoction of penguin poop, feathers, dust, and moldy papers packed around it, the colors and details were almost perfectly preserved when a conservator happened on the painting among the 1,500 objects removed from the hut complex for conservation. As paper conservator Josefin Bergmark-Jimenez described in a release shared this week by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust, she was so startled by the 118-year-old painting she “jumped and shut the portfolio again.” But after she reopened the paper portfolio, she “couldn’t stop looking at it — the colors, the vibrancy, it is such a beautiful piece of work.”
As the New Zealand Herald reported, when Bergmark-Jimenez found the painting in September of 2016, it was not initially clear who had painted the dead bird, especially as tree creepers are not native to Antarctica. The structure in which it was left on a bunk is one of the two Cape Adare huts, built by an 1899 expedition led by the Norwegian explorer Carsten Borchgrevink on an eastern peninsula of Antarctica. These were later used in 1911 by the party of Robert Falcon Scott. It just happened that conservator Bergmark-Jimenez attended a Canterbury University lecture on the art of Dr. Edward Wilson, a member of Scott’s expedition, and made the visual connection between the bird and Wilson’s work and handwriting. Wilson was a doctor, scientist, and painter; his hometown of Cheltenham, England, now has a permanent collection of his art in the Wilson gallery and museum.
Supported by a 1911 newspaper found alongside the painting, the Trust attributed the tree creeper to Wilson. Wilson, like the painting, didn’t make it back from the 1910-13 Terra Nova Expedition. The whole expedition party perished on its return from the South Pole. The curious 1899 date on the painting may indicate that Wilson painted it years before, when he was recovering from tuberculosis in Europe, although the mystery of why he brought it to the isolated hut remains.
In the video embedded below, shared by the Trust, you can hear more about the discovery of the painting. Like all of the objects removed from the hut back in 2015, the painting will eventually return to Antarctica following the stabilization and restoration of the huts, in compliance with the site’s status as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area. According to the BBC, a high-quality reproduction has already been made of the work by the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand. As the Trust notes in the video, the huts are uniquely significant as the “only example left of humanity’s first building on any continent.”
Read more about the rediscovered 118-year-old watercolor online at the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust.