A selection of drawings and watercolours, taken from our Collections, which highlights illustrations of people and landscapes, many produced decades before the camera became part of the standard kit taken on every scientific research expedition.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the camera began to be seen as an important addition to expedition equipment – a new and important method of observation – however, reliability proved an issue as timing exposures and developing glass plate negatives was often difficult in unfamiliar terrain or climate conditions. Sketching with pencil, pen and watercolour often remained the best option, both for its immediacy and the limited kit required to achieve results.
Created by men and women who were largely amateur artists and for whom their skills were learnt in other arenas as scientists, engineers, surgeons, architects and map makers, the sketches and drawings shown also demonstrate the evolution of the role of illustration in scientific reports and published accounts of travels, some being reproduced for the first time in the Society’s own publications.
In many cases, the works are the output of expeditions organised or supported by the Society and undertaken by its Fellows or those closely associated with its primary objective: to advance geographical knowledge.
Delicate, fragile and impermanent, all of the original works form part of the Society's wider Collections which comprise two million items, including maps, photographs, archives and artefacts spanning over 500 years of geographical science and history.
The works are shown in chronological order. The earliest illustrate people and landscapes at a time decades before the camera became available for use by those undertaking scientific research and exploration in the field.
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‘The sea journal: seafarers' sketchbooks’ by Huw Lewis-Jones (London, 2019) K246515
‘Artist and empire: facing Britain's imperial past’, Alison Smith (ed.) (London, 2015) K233517
‘Explorers' Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery & Adventure’ by Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert (London, 2016) K246514
‘Hidden Histories of Exploration’ by Felix Driver and Lowri Jones (Royal Holloway University of London, 2009) rgs235016 (PDF) and ‘Hidden Histories of Exploration’ (Online exhibition)
‘Art and the British Empire’, G. Quilley and G. Fordham (eds) (Manchester, 2007)
‘Art as ethno-historical text: science, representation and indigenous presence in eighteenth and nineteenth century oceanic voyage literature’ by B. Douglas, in ‘Double Vision: Art Histories and Colonial Histories in the Pacific’ by N. Thomas and D. Losche (eds) (Cambridge, 1999), 65-99.
‘The Painted Voyage: Art, Travel and Exploration, 1564-1875’ by Michael Jacobs (London, 1985) K234287
‘Birds of the Antarctic’ by Edward Wilson, edited by Brian Roberts (London, 1967) rgs352004
‘An Artist Among Mountains’ by Victor Coverley-Price (London, 1957) rgs243978
‘Six-legged snakes in New Guinea: a collecting expedition to two unexplored islands’ by Evelyn Cheesman (London, 1949) K232026
‘Two Unexplored Islands off Dutch New Guinea: Waigeu and Japen’ in ‘The Geographical Journal’, 95, No. 3, pp. 208-217
‘Islands near the sun: off the beaten track in the far, fair Society Islands’ by Evelyn Cheesman ... with photographs by L. Gauthier and sketches by the author (London, 1927) rgs243909
‘The mystery of Easter Island: the story of an expedition’ by Mrs [Katherine] Scoresby Routledge (London, 1919) rgs242620
‘The lure of the Caucasus: sketches in prose and paint of travels under the old regime’ by Margaret A. Chambers (typescript, 1913) rgs357828
‘Amurath to Amurath’ by Gertrude Lowthian Bell (London, 1911) rgs231836
‘Aurora Australis. 1908-09’. Published at the winter quarters of the British Antarctic Expedition, 1907, during the winter months of April, May, June, July, 1908. By the British Antarctic Expedition, 1907-9; illustrated with lithographs & etchings by George Marston. rgs351820
‘The desert and the sown’ by Gertrude Lowthian Bell (London, 1907) rgs302946
‘Fridtjof Nansen's "Farthest North", being the record of a voyage of exploration of the ship Fram and of a fifteen months' sleigh journey’ by Dr. Nansen and Lieut. Johansen, with an appendix by Otto Sverdrup (London, 1897) rgs327217
‘The Albert N'yanza, great basin of the Nile, and explorations of the Nile sources’ by Samuel White Baker (London, 1866) rgs301924
‘Sketches from Nipal, historical and descriptive, with anecdotes of the court life and wild sports of the country in the time of Maharaja Jang Bahadur, G. C. B.’ by Dr. H. A. Oldfield. (London, 1880) rgs328170
‘Journal of the discovery of the source of the Nile’ by John Hanning Speke (London, 1863) rgs335845
‘A journey through some of the highest passes in the Ala-tu and Ac-tu Mountains in Chinese Tartary’ by Thomas Witlam Atkinson in Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society 3 (1858-9): pp.127-144 rgs242131
‘Oriental and Western Siberia: a narrative of seven years' explorations and adventures in Siberia, Mongolia, and Kirghis Steppes, Chinese Tartary, and part of Central Asia’ by Thomas Witlam Atkinson (London, 1858) rgs301521
‘Travels in the regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor, and the Russian acquisitions on the confines of India and China’ by Thomas Witlam Atkinson (London, 1861) rgs301522
'Missionary travels and researches in South Africa; including a sketch of sixteen years' residence in the interior of Africa, and a journey from the Cape of Good Hope to Loanda on the West Coast; thence across the continent, down the River Zambesi, to the eastern ocean’ by David Livingstone (London, 1857) rgs322823
‘Personal narrative of a visit to Ghuzni, Kabul, and Afghanistan, and a residence at the Court of Dost Mohamed’ by Godfrey T. Vigne (London, 1840) rgs339068
‘Edward Wilson: the artist’, The Wilson, Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum – online content
‘Thomas Baines: art, exploration and empire’, exhibition due October 2021, Norfolk Museums (preview with artworks)
The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University
‘Material memories of travel: the albums of a Victorian naval surgeon’ by Professor Felix Driver in Journal of Historical Geography, Volume 69, July 2020, Pages 32-54 (PDF)
‘Thomas, Lucy and Alatau: the Atkinsons' adventures in Siberia and the Kazakh Steppe’ by John Massey Stewart (London, 2018) K245657
‘South to the Great Steppe: the travels of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson in Eastern Kazakhstan, 1847-1852’ by Nick Fielding (London, 2015) K233943
‘Maritime science and the visual culture of exploration: the albums of a Victorian naval surgeon’, Public History of Science Lecture at the Royal Society, 8 March 2013 (recording)
‘Among stone giants: the life of Katherine Routledge and her remarkable expedition to Easter Island’ by Jo Anne Van Tilburg; foreword by Andrew Tatham (New York/London, 2013) rgs233389
‘South Polar Times, Folio Society facsimile edition’ by Robert Falcon Scott and others (London, 2012) rgs242287
‘Edward Wilson's Antarctic notebooks’ by D. M. Wilson and C. J. Wilson (Cheltenham, 2011) rgs242746
‘For the love of nature: mammals described and illustrated by the naturalists Gerald E.H. Barrett-Hamilton and Edward Adrian Wilson’ by Martin J. Hollenberg (Vancouver, 2008) K233380
‘With Scott in the Antarctic: Edward Wilson, explorer, naturalist, artist’ by Isobel Williams (Stroud, 2008) rgs233397
‘Thomas Baines - an artist in the service of science in southern Africa: paintings from the collections of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Natural History Museum, London’, edited by Michael Stevenson (London, 1999) rgs368735
‘Types and Customs of New Granada: The Picture collection and Diary of Joseph Brown’ by Michael Deas, Efrain Sanchez & Aida Martinez (Bogota, 1989) rgs369786
‘Artist among the nomads: Victorian traveller in the Tartar steppes’ by Alexander Maitland (London, 1986) rgs368640
‘Thomas Baines: His Life and Explorations in South Africa, Rhodesia and Australia’ by J.P.R. Wallis (South Africa, 1976) rgs368741
‘Speke’ by Alexander Maitland (London, 1971) rgs379753
‘The oil paintings of Thomas Baines in the possession of the Society’ in ‘The Geographical Journal’ 141 (1975) 327-31
Within the Society’s Collections there are some historical images (and image titles or captions) which are recognised as containing unacceptable forms of language, or present image content that is considered inappropriate. In such cases, as part of its Collections policy, the Society maintains access to those images and descriptors as a source of context and information for researchers, recognising that the historical language used or image subjects in themselves do not reflect the Society’s contemporary position as an organisation wholly committed to principles of equality and diversity.
Selected images featured in this online exhibition can be purchased from the RGS Print Store.
This exhibition showcases a selection of platinum prints made from the newly digitised negatives of the 1921 British Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition.
A selection of stunning photographs from the Society's vast image collection, dated between 1851 and 1962.
The fascinating story of the search for the Northwest Passage, featuring a wide selection of images from our Collections.
The history of exploration has often invited celebration; after all, to travel into the unknown is easier said than done. But what, and whom, shall we celebrate?
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