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AURORA of Dundee

Date: 1884
Overall (framed): 685 x 990 x 30 mm
Image: 550 x 850 mm
Medium: Canvas, oil paint
Credit Line: ANMM Collection Gift from Captain Fairweather's great-grand children in memory of their father James S Fairweather 1926-2015
Object Name: Painting
Object No: 00050156

User Terms

    Made famous as a result of its associations with several Antarctic expeditions, the AURORA was originally built to serve in the Arctic whaling fleet sailing annually from Dundee to Canada. The portrait was commissioned by the vessel's Captain, James Fairweather in 1884. The painting shows the AURORA off the entrance to Dundee, Scotland.
    SignificanceThe auxiliary steamship AURORA is best known for its role in supporting early 20th century exploration of the Antarctic continent, particularly the expeditions led by Douglas Mawson and Ernest Shackleton. However, as this painting testifies, the AURORA also had a significant history operating in Arctic waters in the late 19th century.
    Commissioned by Captain James Fairweather, the painting remained in the same family until acquired by the museum.
    HistoryBuilt in Glasgow in 1876 by shipbuilders Alexander Stephen & Sons Ltd for the Dundee Seal and Whale Fishing Company, the AURORA sailed annually from Dundee to the Newfoundland whaling grounds between 1876 and 1910. Built specifically to withstand ice, the vessel was purchased by Douglas Mawson in 1910 for his Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Mawson sailed from Hobart to Macquarie Island in late 1911 and then on to Commonwealth Bay, Antarctica where they arrived in January 1912. Mawson and his team were put ashore at Cape Denison where they established their base (Mawson's Hut) and the AURORA retreated to Hobart for the winter.

    Under the command of Captain John King Davis the vessel returned to Cape Denison in December 1912 to pick up Mawson and his team but found that they were overdue after setting out earlier on a sledging expedition. The AURORA waited until late January but with no sign of Mawson, and with conditions worsening rapidly, left a six man support team at the base and departed for Hobart. A few hours later Douglas Mawson arrived back at the base - the sole survivor of the sledging expedition. A radio message quickly alerted the captain of the AURORA of the situation and he returned but due to fierce winds was unable to pick the men up. Mawson and the other men were left to spend the winter at Cape Denison. They were finally rescued by the AURORA in December 1913.

    In 1914 Sir Ernest Shackleton purchased the vessel from Mawson for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition to carry his supply party to Ross Island. From there they were to lay depots inland to Mount Hope for the main trans-continental party to pick up on their crossing. Under the command of Aeneas Mackintosh AURORA left Hobart in December 1914 and arrived in McMurdo Sound 24 January 1915 when the sledging parties immediately departed. Unfortunately the AURORA broke its moorings in a blizzard in May 1915, marooning the men. It drifted slowly north beset in the ice with a damaged rudder, limping to Dunedin New Zealand nearly 11 months later.

    It was during this expedition that Shackleton's ship ENDURANCE became trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea and was eventually crushed. After camping on the ice for some months Shackleton and his men took to the ship's boats and made their way to the relative safety of Elephant Island where they established a camp. In order to get help, in April 1916 Shackleton and a small party sailed to South Georgia where a Norwegian whaling station existed. They were successful in this, but it was not until August that Shackleton was able to return to rescue his men from Elephant Island. The men from the AURORA party on the other side of the continent had to wait a further five months.

    AURORA was repaired in New Zealand and later that year departed again for the Ross Sea, back under the command of John King Davis who, with Shackleton on board as a supernumerary, rescued the marooned men in January 1917.

    Later that year the AURORA disappeared without trace after leaving Newcastle (Australia) bound for Chile with a cargo of coal. In total the AURORA made five voyages to Antarctic between 1911 and 1917.

    Captain James Fairweather (1853-1933). After completing his apprenticeship in 1871 he joined the whaler TAY and subsequently became mate of the VICTOR. He much preferred whaling to the regular merchant trade. The food was plentiful, as was oil for lamps, and the shifts only eight hours. He was appointed captain of the THETIS in 1882 then assumed command of AURORA from 1883 through 1888. In 1884 he assisted with the rescue of the US Arctic meteorological expedition (led by Lt.Greely) stranded at Cape Sabine. He recognised the decline in whaling and returned to the regular trade in 1889. He retired in 1904 but despite his age enlisted in 1914, appointed as Chief Examiner Tay Defences. In 1916 he was promoted to Lieutenant-Commander of SS DISCOVERY to go to the relief of Shackleton’s men. On reaching Montevideo he received news the men had been rescued thus ending the mission. He died at home in Newport, Scotland.

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