Explorers’ Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery & Adventure is a stunningly beautiful and fascinating book by Kari Herbert and Huw Lewis-Jones. This is one of those books you will fall in love with within moments and want to linger over. It will sit on your side table for months so you can pick it up and page through the illustrations and stop and look at one in great detail, while you imagine the explorer sitting in a tent at the end of the day, jotting down impressions of the day and perhaps sketching in a small illustration of something seen while trekking.
Before Go-Pro, iPhones, and tablets, people who traveled wrote down what happened in notebooks, capturing their impressions, making sketches, even pulling out watercolors to illustrate the more glorious fauna and flora.
These notebooks are tattered and torn, thick with usage, their pages wrinkled and covered with ink and stains. There is romance just in looking at them, these slender books full of adventure, science, and wonder. Consider the word of Ghillean Francs, “Notebooks are the essential part of my exploring kit. Other things of course are important in a practical sense…and each might mean the difference between life and death in the jungle. But, in terms of making a genuine contribution to knowledge, the careful marks that you make in a journal will be the things that outlive you.”
And Kari Herbert and Huw Lewis-Jones have collected a book sampling from seventy of these explorers. Each explorer is presented with a quote, a short biography, and a few illustrative pictures or in a few cases, photos of the stacks of their journals. I also love the inclusion of relatively unknown explorers like Olivia Tonge who at the age of fifty decided to travel to India and explore and no one could stop her. Her illustrations are exquisite and bizarre, with two frogs sharing their page with a pair of earrings that hold a forehead chain and a large, intricate nose ring.
Of course, this book fascinated me from the outset with a comprehensive selection of Arctic and Antarctic explorers including Robert Falcon Scott, shown above on the left. Scott is a special favorite of mine for his eloquent writing, his commitment to science above all, continuing to sledge with his samples even though they probably contributed to his death. He was headstrong and perhaps foolish, unwilling to sacrifice dozens of dogs to reach the Pole. The map on the right is of John Speke and James Grant’s trip from Zanzibar to the Nile, identifying Lake Victoria as the headwaters.
In addition to illustrations from the sketchbooks and the biographies, the authors added a list of recommended books to read about each of the explorers featured. It’s a reading list full of books I want to read.
I love this book. I look at the pictures and imagine when they were made, I look at the journals and picture paraffin or whale-oil illuminating their tents piled with furs for warmth or open to catch a cool evening breeze at an oasis in the desert, in the jungle, on a mountain…challenging the elements by day and capturing the experience before resting for the night. Their own handwriting, their own sketches bring them alive in my imagination. And then there is the language. Some of them are so poetic. Like Colin Thubron who wrote, “Sometimes a journey arises out of hope and instinct, the heady conviction, as your finger travels along the map: Yes, here and here…and here. These are the nerve-ends of the world.” Doesn’t that make you want to know more about him?
I also think it is an ideal present. After all, who will love this book? Artists, historians, science lovers, travel and adventure lovers, armchair travelers, naturalists, geologists, botanists, anthropologists, lovers of the unknown and mysterious. Who in the world will not love this book? That is the harder question.
- Explorers’ Sketchbooks at Chronicle Books
- Explorers’ Sketchbooks at Thames and Hudson
- Kari Herbert
- Huw Lewis-Jones