Gibson shipwreck photograph archive sets sail at $242,500

Perhaps the largest and most important collection of shipwreck photographs, the Gibson family archive, is the star lot in Sotheby's Travel, Atlases, Maps and Natural history sale, which will be held on November 12 in London.

Gibson shipwreck photographs
The Gibson family struggled against the elements to document the shipwrecks, acting as local correspondents

The collection contains 1,000 negatives recording the wrecks of over 200 ships, which were taken by the Gibson family across almost 130 years. It is expected to see £100,000-150,000 ($161,591-242,387).

The collection was started by seaman John Gibson, who was born in 1827. It is not known how Gibson acquired a camera, as they were only affordable to most wealthy members of society, but by 1860, he had established a studio as a professional photographer in Penzance, Cornwall.

After Gibson returned to the Scilly Isles in 1865, he began photographing shipwrecks with his two sons in 1869, becoming the islands' news correspondent. With the waters between Cornwall and the Scilly Isles notoriously dangerous, there was no shortage of work for the family.

Yet being at the forefront of photojournalism in the 1800s was hazardous, with the Gibsons working in harsh conditions, travelling with hand carts over treacherous coastlines carrying their portable dark room and heavy equipment.

Gibson family shipwreck photographer
The Gibson family of Scilly

"This is the greatest archive of the drama and mechanics of shipwreck we will ever see - a thousand images stretching over 130 years, of such power, insight and nostalgia that even the most passive observer cannot fail to feel the excitement or pathos of the events they depict," commented Rex Cowan, a shipwreck hunter and author.

The Gibson archive has inspired similar awe among top authors, with John Le Carre exclaiming upon his visit to the archive in 1997:

"We are standing in an Aladdin's cave where the Gibson treasure is stored, and Frank is its keeper. It is half shed, half amateur laboratory, a litter of cluttered shelves, ancient equipment, boxes, printer's blocks and books.

"Many hundreds of plates and thousands of photographs are still waiting an inventory. Most have never seen the light of day. Any agent, publisher or accountant would go into free fall at the very sight of them."

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