Museum acquires famed Gibson shipwreck photos

An exceptional collection of shipwreck photographs taken by four generations of the Gibson family was bought at a Sotheby’s auction yesterday by the Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG) for £122,500 ($195,645) including buyer’s premium. The archive contains more than 1,100 glass plate negatives, more than 500 film negatives and 97 original print photographs of shipwrecks off the coasts of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. They make the perfect complement to the RMG’s pre-existing collection of historic maritime photography.

For 125 years, starting with patriarch John Gibson, a seaman who became a professional photographer in 1860, the Gibson family braved shoals, waves and sand to capture haunting scenes of shredded ships, dramatic rescues, cargo salvage and burials of people who fell victim to the treacherous coastal waters of southwest England. John’s sons Herbert and Alexander joined the business in 1865 and their talents would come to define the Gibson archive and its exceptional high quality. The first wreck they photographed was in 1869 when the telegraph had just arrived on the Isles of Scilly.

These were not simple point and shoot operations. It was dangerous, highly physical labour.

On the occasion of the wreck of the 3500-ton German steamer, Schiller, in 1876 when over 300 people died, the two brothers worked together for days – [Herbert] preparing newspaper reports, and Alexander transmitting them across the world, until he collapsed with exhaustion. Although they were working in difficult conditions, travelling with a cart or boat to reach the shipwrecks – and scrambling over rocky crags and sand dunes with a portable dark room, carrying fragile glass plates and heavy equipment – they produced some of the most arresting and emotive photographic images of shipwrecks produced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

They were pioneers. This was at a time when most photography was still firmly wedded to the studio portrait. The equipment was so bulky and fragile that climbing over crags hauling not just the camera and plates but a freaking dark room would be inconceivable to most people. That the Gibsons pulled it off is amazing in and of itself; that they also created images of such beauty and emotional resonance makes the archive little short of miraculous.

The Gibson family business is still going strong on the Isles of Scilly, although they’ve added souvenir and wholesale postcard sales to the professional photography. Sandra Gibson, John’s great-great granddaughter, runs it now with her husband Pete. The family decided it was time to sell the archive rather than let it continue to languish in boxes. Author John Le Carré, who used some Gibson photographs in his books, visited the business, then run by Frank, Sandra’s father, in 1997. I love his description of the archive:

“We are standing in an Aladdin’s cave where the Gibson treasure is stored, and Frank is its keeper. It is half shed, half amateur laboratory, a litter of cluttered shelves, ancient equipment, boxes, printer’s blocks and books. Many hundreds of plates and thousands of photographs are still waiting an inventory. Most have never seen the light of day. Any agent, publisher or accountant would go into free fall at the very sight of them.

Now that National Maritime Museum has the pictures, we can all go into free fall at the very sight of them, and the family can be sure it will be archived properly and shared with the world. The museum plans to use the archive to study the dangers of the seafaring life and to display this invaluable record as widely as possible.

Having secured the archive RMG will initially conserve, research and digitize the collection, leading to a number of exhibitions to tour regional museums and galleries, especially those in the South West of England.

Lord Sterling of Plaistow, Chairman of the Royal Museums Greenwich, said:
“The acquisition of this remarkable archive will enable us to create a series of exhibitions that will travel across the country, starting with the South West. I am very pleased that the National Maritime Museum has been able to secure this wonderful collection for the nation, and I know that the Gibson family are delighted that their family archive will remain and be displayed in this country”.

12 thoughts on “Museum acquires famed Gibson shipwreck photos

  1. This surely is a fantastic collection. I can’t wait to see them after their conservation and necessary archival work carried out. Thank you for sharing this wonderful news.

  2. Marvellous: history right there. This article reminds me of having heard Stephen Fry tell his quartet of clever funny people that the tales of Cornish ship-wreckers are furphies: the locals may have benefited from the flotsam, but they were not the cause of it.
    Eye-opening, for me.

    1. Thank you very, very much for introducing me to the word “furphies.” It is a marvelous word and I plan to use it often.

      The Gibson archive is a fine slice of reality compared to he devilish Cornish wreckers of fiction like Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, and the truth is way more compelling than the fiction, imo.

    1. I do try to mix up the vibe as much as possible. I don’t want to be too much of a bummer. 😉

      Wow, that Winslow Homer is something else. I now very much want to see the photo and the painting on display togeher.

  3. John Gibson must have been a very brave man. To risk death himself to capture fleeting images of ships breaking up, dramatic rescues, cargo salvage and people dying in SW England was a serious matter. So why did he (and his descendants) do it? To have the visual details published in newspapers of the time?

    We can be very grateful to the men who took such risks, way back in the 19th century, but what a shame the photos languished in boxes for decades and decades. They are a treasure.

    1. They did indeed become the Scilly journalists. John and Alexander took the pictures while Herbert wrote stories and then the whole lot was telegraphed to a newspaper.

      The plates languished, but the images did continue to be published on book covers, in articles, etc. That was John le Carré’s connection to the Gibsons.

  4. This story is a perfect example of why I love this blog: it shows me fascinating things that I never knew existed.

    I hope that someday the entire Gibson collection will be viewable online!

    1. Me too! The museum press release said they plan to digitize the archive once it’s conserved, so keep your fingers crossed that they’ll upload the whole shebang onto a publically accessible website.

  5. as an ex seaman photo’s fascinating and frightening hope we are allowed to see them all before I shuffle off this mortal coil

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