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Wreck hunter Rex Cowan on the Gibson Collection
Wreck hunter Rex Cowan on the Gibson Collection
Thu, 31/10/2013 - 10:27
Published:31 October, 2013
by DAN CARRIER
IT is one of the most treacherous stretches of sea in the world: and for Rex Cowan, the wild beauty of the ocean around the Isles of Scilly have long played a part in his life.
Rex is a Hampstead-based shipwreck hunter, and in two weeks’ time, an archive of maritime photographs taken by his close friends, the Gibson family of the Isles of Scilly, is being auctioned by Sotheby’s.
It is a collection Rex knows well – it was partly responsible for him quitting a job as a lawyer and taking to the depths to find lost ships.
Victorian pioneer John Gibson was at the forefront of early photographic journalism, and his descendants have kept the business going for over 130 years, covering more than 200 wrecks.
Rex has collaborated on four books over the past four decades on the Gibsons’ work – with cricket correspondent John Arlott, novelist John Fowles and spy writer John le Carré.
The Gibsons’ story starts in 1860. Seaman John Gibson was born in 1827, though by the 1860s he had switched to photography: it isn’t clear how he came to work in such a fledgling field, but he established a business and apprenticed his sons Alexander and Herbert into the trade. They would go on to perfect the art of photographing wrecks and the aftermaths of maritime disasters. Their work flourished, helped by the sheer weight of maritime traffic in the area, the treacherous seas, and the era’s technological advances. John became the Isles’ news reporter and his son Alexander, the telegraph operator: the pair of them would scramble over cliffs and rocky outcrops to get their pictures, take boats out the scenes of wrecks, and then prepare reports for Alexander to transmit around the world.
Rex and his wife Zelide bought a cottage and it was while they were on holiday Zelide stumbled across the small photographic shop run by the Gibsons.
“I first visited in 1961,” recalls Rex. “I had grown up with Treasure Island, and had always had a thing about the romance of islands.
“My wife saw the family’s photographs and thought they were wonderful. We got speaking to Frank Gibson [John Gibson’s great grandson] and he took us into a shed out the back of his shop. It was like walking into Aladdin’s cave: everywhere you looked there were these huge boxes full of plates and negatives going back more than 100 years.
“And the pictures of shipwrecks were just part of a huge archive. It included eye-witness accounts, newspaper reports, all sorts of other material. We felt a little like how Carter must have felt when he discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb. I not only admired their work but we also loved the fact they were proper, working photographers.”
At the time Rex was working as a lawyer, and it was partly the Gibsons’ influence that saw him swap his legal folders for trawling through archives to locate long-lost shipwrecks.
“I had a successful practice but began to think that I didn’t fancy becoming an elderly lawyer – I wanted to do something else,” he recalls.
His wife had begun to research the life and times of the Isles of Scilly: she read about an East Indiaman ship that went down off the coast with a huge treasure trove that no one had yet found.
At the same time, having left legal work, Rex was occasionally acting as a freelance journalist.
“I was given a call by the Sunday Times,” he said. “They said a team of Royal Navy divers had found a ship called The Association, skippered by Cloudesley Shovell, the Navy’s commander in chief, that had sunk in 1707. The Sunday Times said: go and cover this for us,” he recalls.
It was a boat trip that changed his life.
He went aboard a minesweeper the divers were using near the notorious Bishop Rock, a reef which has claimed the lives of many.
He watched the divers at work. “‘This is the life for me,’ I thought,” says the shipwreck hunter.
This coincided with the Navy laying off officers.
“There were a lot of men looking for something to do next. They had wonderful abilities, a spirit of adventure and weren’t afraid of the unknown. I knew what they needed was leadership, organisation and basic research.”
The result was the founding of a wreck-hunting company, Undersea and Search Location Limited. He and Zelide would pore over old archives, records and logs to help the search for ships. His firm has recovered huge amounts of precious metals and other products, ranging from porcelain to materials.
Rex has become an expert in the cloths transported from India and the types of dyes that were used over the centuries, and located ships such as the Hollandia, a Dutch East Indiaman lost off the Isles in 1743 while carrying 50,000 silver coins and in the North Sea The Vliegenthart, lost in 1753 and packed with gold and silver.
Sotheby’s have described the Gibson collection as being “one of the finest and most celebrated archives of shipwreck images in the world” – it’s one Rex would heartily agree with. It includes pictures of more than 200 wrecks and is expected to reach at least £150,000 at auction.
The sale is at Sotheby’s London on November 12. See www.sothebys.com.