Lot 50
  • 50

Gibsons of Scilly

100,000 - 150,000 GBP
122,500 GBP
bidding is closed


  • The complete extant photographic archive of shipwreck and related images by four generations of the Gibson family of photographers, 1872 to 1997, comprising:
  • glass and paper
585 glass plate negatives (214: 12 x 10in. and 382: 8 x 6in.) housed in 16 original wooden boxes and one cardboard box, a few plates with cracks, or loss to glass or image, some boxes worn; 407 glass plate copy negatives (6½ by  4¾in.) 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 (folio, 330 x 205mm.; approximately 149pp. of notes on wrecks and 32pp. of records of telegraph messages sent from the Isles of Scilly, 1876-77)
a collection of books by John Fowles, John Arlott, John Le Carré, and Rex Cowan on the Gibsons of Scilly (see detailed list below), together with newspaper and magazine articles


By descent through the Gibson family


Arlott, John, Rex Cowan and Frank Gibson. Island Camera. The Isles of Scilly in the photography of the Gibson Family. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1972; Fowles, John. Shipwreck... photography by the Gibsons of Scilly. London: J. Cape, 1974; Cowan, R. Castaway & Wrecked. London: Duckworth, 1978; Cowan, R., F. Gibson, and John Le Carré. A Century of Images: Photographs by the Gibson Family. London: A. Deutsch, 1997. (These books are included in the archive).

Catalogue Note

One of the finest and most celebrated collections of shipwreck images in the world, taken by five members of the Gibson family over four generations.

This magnificent collection of photographs records over 200 wrecks over 125 years off the notoriously dangerous coastline of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. These dramatic and often moving images have been featured on television, in magazines, in newspaper articles and books by authors including John Fowles, John Arlott, Rex Cowan and John Le Carré.

The Gibson family photographic business was founded in Penzance in Cornwall by John Gibson in the 1860s, who took his first photograph of a wreck in 1869, however it was his two sons Alexander and Herbert who perfected the art of photographing wrecks and who produced perhaps the most dramatic and haunting images of ships wrecked at sea, and the related images of heroic rescues, survivors, burials and salvage scenes.

The Gibson family's passion for photography has been passed down through an astonishing five generations from John Gibson, who purchased his first camera 150 years ago.

Born in 1827, and a seaman by trade, it is not known how or where John Gibson (d.1920) acquired his first camera at a time when photography was the preserve of professionals or the wealthy, however we do know that by 1860 he had established himself as a professional photographer in a studio in Penzance. Returning to the Scillies in 1865, he apprenticed his two sons Alexander (1857-1944) and Herbert (1861-1937) in the business, forging a personal and professional unity which would be passed down through all the generations which followed. Inseparable from his brother until the end, it is said that Alexander almost threw himself into Herbert’s grave at his funeral in 1937.

The family’s famous shipwreck photography began in 1869, on the historic occasion of the arrival of the first telegraph on the Isles of Scilly. At a time when it could take a week for word to reach the mainland from the islands, the telegraph transformed the pace at which news could travel. At the forefront of early photojournalism, John became the islands’ local news correspondent, and Alexander the telegraphist - and it is little surprise that wrecks were often major news. On the occasion of the wreck of the 3500-ton German steamer, Schiller, in 1876 when over 300 people died, the two brothers worked together for days - John preparing newspaper reports, and Alexander transmitting them across the world, until he collapsed with exhaustion. Although they were working in difficult conditions, travelling with a cart or boat to reach the shipwrecks - and scrambling over rocky crags and sand dunes with a portable dark room, carrying fragile glass plates and heavy equipment - they produced some of the most arresting and emotive photographic images of shipwrecks produced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The tradition of photographing wrecks alongside the everyday photographic work continued in the twentieth century with Alexander's son James (1901-1985), and into the twenty-first century with James's son Frank (1929-2012).

 "Other men have taken fine shipwreck photographs, but nowhere else in the world can one family have produced such a consistently high and poetic standard of work" (John Fowles).

"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." (Rex Cowan, shipwreck hunter and author).  

"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."  (John Le Carré, on visiting the Gibsons of Scilly archive with Frank Gibson in 1997).