One of the great strengths of books about boats is their ability to show human drama on the largest of all possible canvases, whilst simultaneously focussing on the tiniest details of life at sea. Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill turns this dual function into an art form.
This is the story of Ernest Shackleton’s unbelievable second journey to the Antarctic, aboard the Endurance in 1914. The explorer had been part of Scott’s Discovery mission over a decade before, and with his former partner now dead following his later mission to the South Pole, Shackleton had his eyes on the final great Antarctic challenge: The first crossing of the continent, from sea to sea, via the Pole.
This is William Grill’s first book, begun while he was at art college, and pursued, at the suggestion of his tutor, over the following year. The result is a masterpiece.
Grill has lighted upon one of the most extraordinary tales of 20th century exploration, one that is eclipsed in the popular imagination by Scott’s tragic race to the pole, but which deserves this bravura monument of a book.
We see the big picture events through great panoramic vistas worthy of the ship’s daredevil photographer Frank Hurley. Here the ice is the star, with the tough ship Endurance shown dwarfed and vulnerable on the packed ice of the Weddell sea.
Another memorable double page spread is simply entitled ‘ISOLATION’ and shows Endurance as she sails towards her destruction.
The survival of the entire crew offers a mirror image to Scott’s doomed voyage to the pole. The sinking of Endurance is followed by many more months surviving on the ice shelf.
A miraculous escape mission across South Georgia follows, with one team leaving by foot, another in one of the lifeboats – shown as it is specially strengthened for the journey ahead.
The real joy of Shackleton’s Journey are these close up moments. Even in the smallest renderings, every member of the crew is recognisable thanks to Grill’s obsessive attention to detail. “Each crew member has their own telling sign, so when you look through the book you can spot each guy.”
Grill has cited Raymond Briggs as an influence here, particularly his work on the Snowman. I wonder whether he also looked at Briggs earlier Champion Books series, which told some of the great real life tales of derring do, including one on ‘Shackleton’s Epic Voyage.’
Non-fiction picture books are currently booming and Shackleton’s Journey is undoubtedly one of the high points – and easily deserving of its place as one of the best ever books about boats.
Shackleton’s Journey is Published by Flying Eye Books