National Maritime Museum secures one of the most celebrated collections of shipwreck images in the world

 Gurnards Head1912, The Mildred: Gurnards Head. From the Gibson archive of Scilly. 12 November 2013 – Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG) today acquired a world renowned and nationally significant collection of photographic and archive material. The Gibson archive presents one of the most graphic and emotive depictions of shipwrecks, lifesaving and its aftermath produced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The material was acquired at the Sotheby's Travel, Atlases, Maps and Natural History Sale.

The archive of dramatic and often haunting images, assembled over 125 years (1872 to 1997) by four generations of the Gibson family, records over 200 wrecks – the ships, heroic rescues, survivors, burials and salvage scenes – off the treacherous coastline of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

 St Mary's, Isle of Scilly1874, Minnehaha: St Mary's, Isle of Scilly. Gibson archive. The acquisition of this collection comprising of over 1360 glass and film negatives, complements the Museum’s existing, extensive historic photography collection, and creates an unprecedented opportunity for the Museum to further examine and explore the story of life at sea and the dangers experienced by seafarers through research, education and display projects.

John Gibson (1827–1920) founded the family photographic business in the 1860s and took his first photograph of a wreck in 1869. He apprenticed his two sons Alexander (1857–1944) and Herbert (1861–1937), who perfected the art of photographing wrecks, creating perhaps some of the most remarkable and evocative images of misadventure at sea. Among the items included in the collection is the ledger the Gibson brothers kept when taking the photographs, which contains records of the telegraph messages sent from Scilly and is full of human stories of disaster, courage and survival.

 Kettles, Isles of Scilly1970, Poleire: Kettles, Isles of Scilly. Gibson archive. 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”.

 White Island, St Martin's, Isles of Scilly1875, Aksai shipwreck: White Island, St Martin's, Isles of Scilly. Gibson archive. The newly acquired material was purchased by the Museum for £122,500 (the estimated sale price was £100,000–£150,000).

Notes to Editors:

1. Royal Museums Greenwich incorporates the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory Greenwich, the 17th-century Queen’s House and Cutty Sark. Royal Museums Greenwich works to illustrate for everyone the importance of the sea, ships, time and the stars and their relationship with people. This unique collection of attractions, which form a key part of the Maritime Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage Site, welcomes over 1.5 million British and international visitors a year and is also a major centre of education and research. For more information visit www.rmg.co.uk.

2. Items acquired today at auction:

  • 585 Glass plate negatives (214: 12 x 10in: 8 x 6in) housed in 16 original wooden boxes and one cardboard box.
  • 407 Glass plate copy negatives (6½ x 4¾ in) in 4 cardboard boxes.
  • 179 Glass plate negatives (4¼ x 3¼in).
  • 198 film negatives (5 x 4in) in three boxes.
  • 335 cut film negatives (various sizes) and 39 (35mm) film negatives.
  • 97 original photographs of shipwrecks (silver prints, 12 x 10in)
  • Manuscript ledger by Alexander and Herbert Gibson on the shipwrecks of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.
  • A collection of books by John Fowles, John Arlott, John Le Carré, and Rex Cowan on the Gibsons of Scilly, together with newspaper and magazine articles.

For further information, please contact:

Sheryl Twigg or Rosie Linton, Royal Museums Greenwich Press Office
Tel: 020 8312 6790/6789 | 07903 547 284 or Email: press@rmg.co.uk