Update: The lambskin mittens belonging to Apsley Cherry-Garrard sold for £7,500, or about $10,435–well above their high estimate.
What you see: A pair of lambskin inner mittens with cotton drawstrings, which belonged to British explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Bonhams estimates them at £1,500 to £2,000 ($2,000 to $2,700).
Who was Apsley Cherry-Garrard? He was the second-youngest member of Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition (1910-1913) to Antarctica. He and two fellow explorers embarked on a five-week journey to collect Emperor penguin eggs in the dark depths of winter. (It had to be winter, because that’s when the penguins lay their eggs.) Cherry-Garrard chattered his teeth to bits in the punishingly cold weather. He was lucky; unlike Scott or his companions on the penguin egg quest, he lived to tell the tale in the aptly-named 1922 adventure travel classic, The Worst Journey in the World. Cherry-Garrard died in 1959 at the age of 63.
So, Cherry-Garrard wore at least two sets of mittens in Antarctica, yes? “I’m not a mitten specialist, but as far as I can tell, these are inner mittens,” says Matthew Haley, head of books and manuscripts at Bonhams. “If you see the pictures, they [the explorers] are usually wearing rabbit or fox fur [on their hands]. I think these are the liners.”
And did these lambskin inner mittens represent the apex of cold weather gear circa 1910? “They were about as technically advanced as it got,” he says.
The Terra Nova explorers had to choose between mittens or gloves, and they went with mittens. How did that affect the expedition? “They knew mittens were warmer, but it must have been difficult to manipulate the sledges and do scientific experiments,” he says. “It added to the misery of a nightmarish environment. Cherry-Garrard made a very long sledge trek in Antarctic winter, which is our summer. The temperatures fell below – 77 Fahrenheit, or – 60 Celsius.”
How well did these mittens work for him? Cherry-Garrard didn’t comment on the performance of his lambskin mittens, but the Bonhams lot notes quote a passage from page 238 of The Worst Journey in the World: “My clothing had frozen hard as I stood… For four hours I had to pull with my head stuck up, and from that time we all took care to bend down into a pulling position before being frozen in. By now we had realized that we must reverse the usual sledging routine and do everything slowly, wearing when possible the fur mitts which fitted over our woollen mitts, and always stopping whatever we were doing, directly we felt that any part of us was getting frozen, until the circulation was restored.”
Cherry-Garrard and his two companions bore five Emperor penguin eggs back to the base camp wrapped in their mittens. Do we know if he used these mittens to carry any eggs? “I don’t know whether we can say it was exactly this pair,” he says. “But he did have this pair with him, and he gathered Emperor penguin eggs, and he wrapped them in his mittens to stop them from freezing. He managed to get three back to London.”
How do we know these are Cherry-Garrard’s mittens from the Terra Nova expedition? “They were originally consigned by members of his family at a previous auction,” he says. “They were acquired by the current owner from there.”
Are these the only Cherry-Garrard expedition-used artifacts that might have come in direct contact with the penguins? “It’s difficult to say for definite, but [the penguin backstory] gives a bit more color to it,” he says, adding that Bonhams sold a pair of woolen mittens worn by Terra Nova expedition member George Levick in 2014 for £625 ($846).
How desirable are Cherry-Garrard artifacts among polar collectors? Who, other than Scott, would be more sought-after than him? “Probably any of the people who died in the tent,” says Haley, referring to Captain Lawrence Oates, Petty Officer Edgar Evans, Doctor Edward Wilson, and Lieutenant Henry Bowers. “It’s kind of grisly, but if you died on the expedition, you became more mythological than those who didn’t. In 2012, we sold a 1912 letter that was found on Scott’s body for £163,250 ($221,228). You don’t get much better than that.”
One of the mittens has a few “rust marks.” What are rust marks? He says they’re literally marks caused by rust. The mitten must have rested against a rusty bit of metal at some point.
Have you tried the mittens on? How big are they? “I haven’t, actually, because they’re framed,” he says. “They’re quite large, almost 12 inches long. They had to cover the wrists as well.”
What else makes these mittens special? “There’s something a little light and amusing about mittens,” he says. “You think of a toddler with them dangling from ribbons on their sleeves. It’s the combination of the sweet idea of the mittens in your head with the grim reality of what Cherry-Garrard had to deal with.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.
Purchase a copy of The Worst Journey in the World through the Strand Bookstore in New York City.
In 2012, the Natural History Museum, London, placed one of the Emperor penguin eggs retrieved by Cherry-Garrard on display and created a web page about its treasure.
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