Friday, 23 October 2009

Jane Bown portrait of Wilfred Thesiger

Last night saw the opening of Exposures: A retrospective of Jane Bown's portraits - an exhibition of 100 pictures by the Observer’s legendary photographer, at London’s Kings Place. Drawing on work from her six-decade career, there are familiar images such as that of a glowering Samuel Beckett or Bjork peeping out from behind her hands, but there are many more that have never been seen before.

Exposures, the book, includes Jane Bown’s recollections of the day the pictures were taken plus there's a Channel 4 film about the exhibition.

One striking portrait, not in the exhibition but which appears in Those Who Dared, is that of the explorer, Wilfred Thesiger. It was taken in 1990, when he was 80 years old.

In the winter of 1946, Thesiger, a British ex-soldier and colonial administrator, became the first westerner to explore in detail the Rub al Khali, or fearsome empty quarter of Arabia, the world’s largest sand desert. Travelling with only a small group of Bedouin and camels and wearing traditional Arab dress, he went there ‘to find peace in the hardship of desert travel ... the harder the way the more worthwhile the journey.’

Thesiger was the self-styled last explorer in the tradition of the past. That is, one of the great traveller-adventurer-writers who from Victorian times to the mid-20th century explored wild and lost areas of the world, often alone, enduring great hardship but delivering powerful works of literature on their return. No travel piece about desert exploration seems complete without making some reference to this towering figure.

Undoubtedly he was one of Britain's greatest explorers and very a fine writer too, but I think Rory Stewart’s comment that “rather than being the last Victorian he was closer to being the first hippy on the overland trail”, gets closer to the truth (from the introduction to the 2007 edition of Arabian Sands.)

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