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Cornwall may lose historic treasure as Gibson collection is auctioned off

By The Cornishman  |  Posted: October 25, 2013

  • The container ship Cita came to grief at Newfoundland Point, St Mary's, in March 1997; the officer of the watch was accused of being asleep. Mainland police reinforcements were dispatched to the islands to deter looters after her cargo, which ranged from car tyres, computer mice and shirts to golf bags, trainers and doors.

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AN ALADDIN'S cave – the words of author John le Carré – of work by a 19th-century Isles of Scilly photographic dynasty goes under the hammer at Sotheby's on November 12.

Predicted to fetch £100,000 to £150,000, the Gibson collection could be lost both to the islands and Cornwall.

Amanda Martin, of the islands' museum, said she was "very surprised and disappointed" to learn of the intended sale via an article in The Sunday Times.

"As the curator of a fully accredited museum dedicated to keeping the islands' heritage in the islands for the benefit of all, I deeply regret that we were not given the opportunity to put together a funding bid to purchase this precious archive," she said.

The work of four generations of the Gibson family, thousands of film and glass-plate negatives, prints and a shipwreck ledger – together recording more than 200 wrecks around Cornwall and the islands – are to be sold as a single lot.

The auctioneers describe it as an unparalleled archive containing "some of the most arresting and emotive photographic images of the 19th and 20th centuries". Copyright goes with the collection.

"The family has agreed that the best way forward is to put this collection up for sale," said Hugh Town photographer Sandra Kyne (née Gibson), one of three daughters of Frank Gibson and his wife Marie.

Retaining the collection in Scilly was just not possible, she said: "The collection, some of which are works of art, is so vast that we've never been able to archive and catalogue it in any meaningful way.

"The public have always wanted access to these shipwreck photographs, which exclusively make up this sale collection, and this is a way of ensuring that happens.

"Up to now appreciation has been largely confined to the West Country."

For four generations, from 1869 to the present day, Gibsons recorded in pictures the life of the islands, including the grim toll of lost vessels.

The Gibsons ran businesses in both West Cornwall and Scilly, and sometimes expended their energies in feuding as well as photography; one family spat led to some valuable crockery being dumped down a mine shaft.

John Gibson, a sailor, acquired his first camera as a young man. He passed on his enthusiasm to sons Alexander – a Cornish bard and author of the first island guidebook – and Herbert, who in turn was succeeded by James and then Frank, who died two years ago. Now Sandra carries on the family tradition.

Alexander, artistic and bearded, had left school at 12 to become a telegraphist with the newly arrived cable company that had helped bring the islands out of Atlantic isolation. In 1875, when the German liner SS Schiller came to grief on the Retarrier Ledges and more than 300 passengers lost their lives, he spent the night of the disaster tapping out telegrams to relatives of those aboard before collapsing, exhausted.

Over 75 years he amassed an amateur archaeological collection some of which survives to this day in the islands' museum. An honorary member of a US archaeological society, he entertained islanders with lantern slides and chose as his bardic name Tas an Enesow, Father of the Islands.

Professor James Ryan of Exeter University, a specialist in travel photography, said what was being offered for sale in the Travel, Atlases, Maps and Natural History auction was "not the entire collection but the more commercially viable bits", particularly shipwreck negatives: "They would appear to be going for the commercial market. It's an amazing collection and it would be wonderful if there were some way of keeping it in Cornwall or Scilly."

Mrs Kyne said all museums were informed of the collection's sale and had every opportunity to acquire it.

Professor Ryan said he heard of the sale at a meeting at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich in London.

The early Gibsons were renowned for the lengths they went to in capturing, in what was then a fledgling art, all aspects of island life, laboriously carrying heavy cameras, plates and a portable darkroom over beaches, rocks and headlands and working outdoors in all weathers.

Alexander's archive of images, begun in 1869, represented the islands' first unofficial museum.

The handwritten shipwreck ledger was particularly valuable in historic terms, said Professor Ryan.

"The Greenwich museum would love to acquire the collection if they could.

"They hate to see important local archives broken up or disappearing overseas or fragmented."

However, he said the museum was often "strapped for funds" and he believed fundraising efforts were being directed elsewhere at present.

The Maritime Museum in Falmouth would also treasure it, he said, as would Penzance's Morrab Library, the University of Exeter/Falmouth or the Cornwall Records Office.

The auction blurb quotes wreck-hunter and author Rex Cowan as saying: "This is the greatest archive of the drama and mechanics of shipwreck we will ever see."

Back in 1967 John le Carré expressed the view that: "Any agent, publisher or accountant would go into freefall" over the collection, while author John Fowles said: "Nowhere else in the world can one family have produced such a consistently high and poetic standard of work."

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