'Something the Artist Wishes to Say' - Article Extract
Theodore "Howard" Somervell lived a life full of remarkable achievements. He was a member of the 1922 and 1924 Everest expeditions, an Alpine Club president and an accomplished surgeon who served on the frontlines at the Somme in 1916 and as a missionary in India for much of his later life. He was the recipient of both an OBE and an Olympic Gold Medal. But he was also a prolific artist, drawing and painting throughout his life - through war, exploration and service. He was one of the first artists to apply cubism to his depictions of mountain landscapes and his works documented many of the most famous Himalayan peaks.
To mark the anniversary of his birth in 1890, we would like to share an extract from David Seddon's profile of Somervell as an artist from the 2005 Alpine Journal.
'Something the Artist Wishes to Say'
T H Somervell 1890-1975
Theodore Howard Somervell has a record of achievement extending beyond his mountaineering exploits that has hitherto been only partly appreciated. First and foremost, he was a family man and a man of profound Christian belief who devoted his professional life to the health of the people of southern India. In 1922 and 1924 he climbed high on Everest without supplementary oxygen. He was President of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club (1954-56) and President of the Alpine Club (1962-65). He was a musician and an author, and as recent exhibitions and picture cards testify, he was also an accomplished artist. Yet even those aware of Somervell's output think of him as a painter of only Himalayan scenes.
Somervell was encouraged to sketch by his father, William Henry Somervell (1860-1934), a competent watercolourist and a collector of modern art. A studio photograph exists of Howard, aged six or seven, with paint tray in hand. As a boy he was soon painting local scenes in Kendal and as an undergraduate exhibited at the Cambridge Drawing Society (Albemarle Street, watercolour) in 1910. In 1911 Somervell and fellow students also organised a 'spoof' art show of the avant garde artists then in vogue.
Somervell painted many hundreds if not thousands of paintings. His family describe him as a compulsive sketcher and painter. He would just sit down and in 20 minutes or so complete a simple sketch or watercolour. Of some 540 titles that I have been able to identify, 201 are of the Himalaya or Tibet. Of these, 125 date or relate to the 1922 or 1924 expeditions although there are certainly another 30 or so, exhibited at the Redfem Gallery in 1926, that I have been unable to trace. He seems to have been more active in 1922 than in 1924, with upwards of 80 paintings from late March to late July 1922, perhaps his most prolific period.
Of the rest, there are 54 paintings of India, 86 of the Alps and other mountain ranges, 86 of the Lake District, 23 of Scotland and Wales, and others from all over the world. These figures can only be a guide to his total output. In retirement, he continued to paint and was, like his father, invited to join the Lake Artists Society (LAS). He exhibited a total of 136 paintings at the annual exhibitions of the Society from 1920 onwards, at first intermittently but following his return from India, he exhibited almost every year until his death. He painted specific scenes for friends and gave many of his paintings away. In 1934 he painted The Grepon, Chamonix (private collection) in memory of a climber who had died on Mont Blanc. He exhibited his work on at least 30 occasions and held six exhibitions as sole artist.
Many of Somervell's watercolours are painted on what may be no more than brown or off-white wrapping paper. The paper has a ribbed appearance and some of that used in 1922 was watermarked 'Michallet, France'. He usually painted with the ribbing set horizontally, though in some paintings it appears vertically. He used this paper as early as 1913 and was still using it in the 1970s. I am not aware of any other artist who used a paper such as this. He often used bodycolour; that is watercolour mixed with gouache, in preference to watercolour alone and often used pastel either alone or with watercolour. Watercolour was his favoured medium in Tibet, the Himalaya and India.
He painted during the First World War and, although not a member, exhibited at the New English Art Club in 1917 (Ypres 1917, Stone Quarry, Pas de Calais) and again in 1921 (Dent Blanche). Another painting dating from his war service, The Somme Valley, was exhibited in 1921 at the LAS. There are, however, no Somervell paintings held in the Imperial War Museum. Also exhibited at the LAS in 1921 was The Matterhorn from Rothorn. He was to paint at least another nine views of the Matterhorn, the last, an oil, dated 1969.
The Alpine Club is fortunate in possessing 30 paintings by Somervell. Of these, 23 date from the Everest expeditions, the majority from 1922. Of the others, there is an oil, Jannu, dated 1943 and two watercolours of Nanda Devi: Nanda Devi from Marloti looking west dated 1933 and Nanda Devi from Kwal Ganga-Ka Pahar dated 1926.
The Everest Expeditions
When the 1922 Everest expedition arrived at their base camp, Somervell assisted with the organisation of stores for transport to higher camps whilst others prospected the route. He thought Everest stately rather than fantastic and was struck by the cubist appearance of the northern aspect of the mountain. In the first eight days of May he painted six oils and 10 watercolours of Everest. Amongst these would have been Mount Everest's Western Shoulder (AC 1922 and 1923) and The Western Shoulder of Everest (AC 1923).
Two years later, Somervell recorded sketching Chomolhari at least twice on 9 April 1924 although his brushes froze. There had been five paintings of Chomolhari in 1922. On a solitary excursion away from the main body of the expedition on 28 April, he painted Gyachung Kangfrom Gyachung La. He certainly painted base camp scenes again such as Everest (watercolour, private collection), however I suspect he spent less time at base in 1924 than in 1922, as there would have been no need to prospect the route. With bad weather and the rescue delaying summit attempts, he may not have had the time to seek out new views to sketch. However From Camp VI (oil, AC 1954) must have been inspired in 1924 as there was no such high camp in 1922.
Somervell continued to paint scenes from Tibet and the Himalaya well into his retirement. There is, for instance, an oil, Chomolhari, dated 1922 and 1972 (private collection). One presumes that the original dated from 1922 and continued to provide inspiration half a century later. Sadly, of some two hundred scenes of Tibet and the Himalaya that Somervell is known to have painted, I have been able to trace less than half. Similarly, I have been able to trace very few of his paintings of southern India.
Influences and Legacy
Somervell had sketched with William Rothenstein (1872-1945), an official war artist during WWI, and remarked on his attention to detail in drawing even the humblest of objects. In his autobiography Rothenstein records meeting Somervell in March 1918 but makes no other comment about him. Somervell later wrote that the aspiring mountain artist must first draw his mountain, simplifying detail, 'cubifying' as he put it.
Another source of influence on Somervell was Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) who, in 1946, was described by Somervell as .... the greatest mountain painter alive... '. Roerich was a Russian who travelled through India and North America in the 1920s before settling in Kulu. Somervell stayed at his house for a few days in 1944. Roerich's paintings demonstrate a similarity in style with those of Somervell. The cubist influence on both artists is clear although Roerich saw and developed mysticism in his work while Somervell did not. Other influences would have included his father, other Lake artists such as the Heaton Coopers and also Edward Norton who himself painted and sketched with skill on both the 1922 and 1924 Everest expeditions.
Somervell wrote of the colour and atmosphere of Tibet in ‘Assault on Everest: 1922’ and his pictures capture the distances, space and remoteness of Tibet and the Himalaya. Yet in ‘After Everest’ he wrote 'People at home will say my sketches are hard, lacking poetry or mystery but that is just where they are true records of this extraordinary clarity.' He was not the first European to paint the Himalayan peaks. An exhibition of paintings of Tibet, Kashmir and India by William Simpson was held at the Pall Mall Gallery in 1869 and Edward Lear had painted three oils and several watercolours of Kangchenjunga following a visit to Darjee1ing in 1874.
Somervell wrote in a note to his 1936 exhibition that a picture must 'communicate something the artist wishes to say' as well as being 'in some measure descriptive of its subject'. Although Somervell sold some paintings, he gave many away and should not in any way be regarded as a commercial artist. This allowed his style to develop much more freely than it might otherwise have done. Probably no other artist applied Cubism to the high mountains in such a consistent and authoritative way as Somervell. This is particularly true of his later works and he deserves more recognition as an artist in his own right. Most would regard his paintings of the great Himalayan peaks and Tibet as unique and they are an important part of the heritage of the Alpine Club as well as the history of mountain art.
This article is an abridged extract from the 2008 Alpine Journal article ‘Something the Artist Wishes to Say’ by David Seddon. You can read the full article here.