Feature-length articles on mountaineering and mountain-related topics, including art, science and history.


IMD: Seeing Beauty in Roughness

International Mountain Day: Seeing Beauty in Roughness

The geological processes that shape mountain ranges are staggeringly complex, but understanding them can add a whole new dimension to our appreciation of the mountain environment.

In this article, Chair of the Alpine Club Library Council Philip Meredith and Librarian Beth Hodgett explore how a fresh perspective on geometry can help us think about mountains in a whole new way.

Sgurr Alasdair from Sgurr Dearg by Charles Pilkington

People have been drawn to mountains for centuries, and a large part of their appeal lies in the breathtaking aesthetic qualities of mountain ranges. The Alpine Club holds a globally important collection of paintings and drawings dating back to the earliest days of mountaineering which document this obsession. Many prominent mountaineers have also been notable artists, and this is certainly the case for one of the most famous climbers of the ‘Golden Age’ of Alpinism, Edward Whymper (1840-1911).

While Whymper is most well known for his controversial first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, he also had a promising career as a wood engraver. Whymper came from a family of artists, his father Josiah (1813-1903) was a watercolour painter, and Whymper himself began his artistic apprenticeship at the age of fourteen. Numerous examples of Whymper’s wood engravings can be found in early issues of the Alpine Journal, as well as in his famous publication 'Scrambles Amongst the Alps'.


Further Reading: Whymper's London Diary, January-June 1858 | British History Online ----- Scrambles Amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-69 | Google Books


As climbers and alpinists we are used to examining rock faces and mountain ridges in detail, inspecting them to assess potential lines and the likelihood of protection. As Whymper himself put it, “None but blunderers fail to do so”. The process of preparing a wood engraving requires many of the same techniques of close observation, in order to understand and accurately represent the form and proportions of a mountain. It was this attention to detail that led Whymper to make an astute geological observation. On 25th June 1864 Whymper was part of a party that made the first ascent of the Barre des Écrins. In his account of the climb Whymper wrote:

"According to my custom I bagged a piece from off the highest rock (chlorite slate), and I found afterwards that it had a striking similarity to the final peak of the Ecrins. I have noticed the same thing on other occasions, and it is worthy of remark that not only do fragments of such rock as limestone often present the characteristic forms of the cliffs from which they have been broken, but that morsels of mica slate will represent, in a wonderful manner, the identical shape of the peaks of which they have formed a part. Why should it not be so, if the mountain’s mass is more or less homogeneous? The same causes which produce the small forms fashion the large ones; the same influences are at work; the same frost and rain give shape to the mass as well as to its parts."


Whymper's rock sample from the Barre des Écrins
The Barre des Écrins, photographed by Sue Hare

Whymper’s interest in this more unusual kind of summit bagging is also evident in his account of his infamous first ascent of the Matterhorn, which is illustrated in Scrambles… by an engraving of a rock taken from the summit of the Matterhorn. Once again, the similarity between the fragment and the overall form of the peak is striking. We can see another example of this in the Alpine Club’s collection.


The Matterhorn
A sample of rock from the Matterhorn

Compare this picture of the Matterhorn with the fragment of rock taken from near the Matterhorn’s summit and gifted to the Alpine Club as part of the celebrations commemorating the club’s 150th anniversary, and you can very clearly see Whymper’s point. In fact, recognising that tiny rock fragments and far larger rock structures can look identical in form has led to the universal practice of including a scale-bar in geological photographs. Without the scale it is essentially not possible to tell the size of the object, as demonstrated in the pair of photographs below.


Is this a close-up shot of a rock fragment?
Or a much larger formation?

But is it possible to prove that the piece of rock from the Matterhorn summit doesn’t just look qualitatively similar to the whole mountain but is actually quantitatively identical in structure?

The mathematical theory to describe such structures was developed by the Polish-French-American mathematician, Benoit Mandelbrot. In 1975 Mandelbrot coined the term 'fractal geometry'; drawing on the latin root of the word for ‘fractional’ to describe shapes that maintain their ‘roughness’ or complexity regardless of the level of detail they are examined at. A classic example of this is the Romanesco Broccoli.

If you look closely at the photograph, you can see that each segment of the broccoli is made up of a number of smaller segments whose shape mimics that of the larger structure. No matter how closely you zoom in, the structure of each segment appears the same. This similarity of structure across different scales is called self-similarity.

One way to prove that a small rock fragment and a mountain are mathematically self-similar rather than merely looking alike is to compare how they both take up space. However this is easier said than done. While some shapes are relatively straightforward to measure, others are much more challenging. We are all used to thinking in one, two and three dimensions; that is dimensions of whole integers. For example we know that a cube fills a three dimensional volume, but how do we measure the volume of something more complex like a tree or an alpine ridge, which only partially fills its surrounding volume?

The tree will not perfectly fill the surrounding space, but we can measure what fraction of the space it fills. 

Mandelbrot’s great insight was the theory of fractal geometry. Within this concept, the tree is less than three-dimensional but more than two-dimensional; it has a fractal (or fractional) dimension between 2 and 3. This occurs because natural forms like rock fragments or mountains are not made up of smooth planes, but of complex, rough surfaces that are much harder to measure.

Mandelbrot demonstrated this in a 1967 article in which he posed the question: ‘How Long is the Coastline of Britain?’ The problem with solving such questions, Mandelbrot argued, is that when trying to measure a ‘rough’ shape like a coastline, you get a different answer depending on the unit of measurement that you use. Much like the example of the Romanesco Broccoli, the more you zoom in to look at the coastline, the more complex the shape becomes, with ever-decreasing wrinkles in the rock continuously adding to the overall length to the extent that the problem becomes intractable and an accurate measurement simply cannot be made.

One of the main insights of Mandelbrot’s theories of fractal geometry was his proposal of mathematical ways of measuring this roughness. Using these methods, we can determine the fractal geometry of a mountain ridge and of a piece of rock that comes from it and see that commonly they are quantitatively the same.

Over 100 years after Whymper first observed the relationship between the fragments of rock he collected and the peaks he climbed, Mandelbrot’s theories enable us to move from Whymper’s qualitative observation about the aesthetic similarity between rock samples and peaks, to being able to describe and quantify the relationship between rock samples. In doing so, it is possible to show that Whymper was right, small rock fragments really do fracture in ways that are self similar to the shape of the peaks that they come from! 

Glacial structure
A map displaying the distribution of mountain ridges

Being able to measure variations in roughness opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for understanding the formation of mountains. For example, being able to measure and quantify the microstructural geometry of a rock at the crystallographic scale can help us to understand the mechanics of where, when and how it might fracture. Understanding details like this can help us work backwards from the form that mountains take in the present to reconstruct the processes that formed the mountain many millions of years ago. The mathematics of fractal geometry can also explain the distribution of crevasses in a glacier, the arrangement of mountain ridges, or even the distribution of boulders on a scree slope.

The beauty of Mandlebrot’s work is that it helps us understand and describe the patterns that underlie the seeming chaos of the natural world, giving us new ways to appreciate not only the complexity of the natural world, but the skilled perception of artists like Whymper who study it.

So next time you're on the hill and you notice a loose piece of rock, take a longer look. There's a whole mountain hidden in its geometry.




Everest 1975 | Alpine Journal Extract

Everest 1975 - Journal Extract

On the 24th of September 1975, a British expedition lead by Sir Chris Bonington was successful in making the first ascent of Everest’s South-West Face.

In total, four individuals reached the summit as part of this expedition; the first party of Doug Scott and Dougal Haston which summited on the 24th and another of Pete Boardman and Pertemba Sherpa, which summited on the 26th. During this second summit bid, Mick Burke was lost on the mountain.

The 1976 write-up of the expedition in the Alpine Journal by Pete Boardman and Ronnie Richards makes for an engrossing read, with a particularly vivid re-telling of Haston and Scott’s summit bid as told from the perspective of the observers lower down the mountain. It also contains an honest appraisal of the expedition’s methods and costs – contrasting them with the increasing popularity of alpine-style pushes.

An extract is presented below.

The upper part of Everest SW face.

Each day exact checks on what food and equipment were in each camp had to be matched against the number of Sherpas available for carrying and what was required for upward progress and maintenance of present positions with safety margins. Radio messages, regarded somewhat ambivalently at first, were prolonged when the chain became extended and front progress almost too fast, especially when oxygen and an alarming number of faulty regulators had to be juggled into the calculations. This operation depended of course on our Sherpas, whose particularly high morale and enthusiasm were key factors in the whole expedition; the unprecedented quantities, so quickly built up at Camp 5, were an indicator of the support coming right through from Base Camp and the organisational efforts of Chris Bonington, Mike Cheney, Adrian Gordon, Dave Clarke and our Sirdars Pertemba and Ang Phu.

Yet, in the midst of the apparently inexorable machine-like activity, the mountain was large enough for one to realise that it would not require much to reverse the tide of circumstances carrying us forward so well. A few days out in front could emphasise the contrasts. Early morning outside Camp 5, the eye would be greeted by a glow suffusing across the horizon, Cho Oyu tipped with rosy orange, Pumori, now a pimple, emerging out of the dark stillness below and the fringe of Gosainthan and its Tibetan neighbours in the distance. Conscious of fiddling with freezing crampons and oxygen apparatus in the half-light and then, cocooned in a semi-somnolent shell, the rhythmical shuffle, pull, plod and gasp up the ropes to the previous day's high point. Fix a few more rope lengths until no more was left and then easily slide down in the bright light to excavate a snow platform and erect the next box, so more rope instead of box platforms could come up from Camp 2.

By the time we reached the Rock Band on 19 September, progress was well in advance of that on previous attempts and even the most optimistic computer estimate on Chris's multicoloured graphs. From below and from air photos it was not possible to see whether the left-hand gully provided a route through the Rock Band, as it was so deep and well concealed. The break­through came on 20 September when Tut Braithwaite and Nick Estcourt cramponed into the bowels of the Rock Band. They encountered some difficult mixed pitches whilst entering and climbing up the gully, including an ice-clad chockstone that succumbed to a few pitons for aid. In the curling mists of the afternoon it had the haunting atmosphere of a Scottish gully with dark looming walls soaring upwards from a narrow snow bed. Then Nick and Tut dumped their empty oxygen cylinders and climbed across a remarkable ramp, loose and difficult, that led out from the gully rightwards to the top of the Band.

Braithwaite climbing the ramp to the top of the Rock Band

Down in Camp 2 awaiting developments, an anxious call came from Camp 1 that it was collapsing; Hamish strode off to a Canute-like investigation. A bunting-like bird hopped about outside the mess tent whilst those within disposed of roast yak with relish. When Tut and Nick eventually arrived back off the Face, the crowded superbox felt like the Padarn Lake Hotel as they talked and gesticulated about their high-altitude acrobatics. Temporary feelings of anti-climax at lack of news and non-involvement with action above soon dissolved into euphoria. In only one day, the crux of the route and stumbling block of 5 earlier expeditions had at last been climbed and success seemed near.

On one long relentless day Mike Thompson, Mick Burke, Chris Bonington, Ang Phurba and Pertemba carrying vital ropes, fuel and oxygen, supported Doug Scott and Dougal Haston in establishing Camp 6 on a slim crest on the snow-slope above the Rock Band. At last it was possible to look across that much dreamed-about great traverse, and up the gully to the S Summit of Everest. Above, the wind was blowing ice particles off the summit ridge, shimmering in the sunlight. The support team took a long look from their 8320 m eyrie and then, with supreme altruism, turned back down to Camp 5 as the sun declined behind towering anvil clouds over Nepal. Doug and Dougal were left excavating a perch for their tiny green box. After spending a day fixing 400 m of rope that wavered around spurs and over steep rock steps, they were back again and were poised for their final attempt, the Alpine commitment of leaving the end of the safety line and forging for the summit. And at the back of their minds, they were aware of the other teams moving up the face below them, snapping at their heels, eager for their chance.

The next morning the BBC cameraman Ian Stewart, plodded dedicatedly up the W Cwm. He pointed his telephoto lens at two figures 1800 m above him moving steadily across the top of the Rock Band. Occasionally a dead man on one of their waists flashed a sense of immediacy down into the Cwm.

Haston on the traverse above the Rock Band

Back in the boxes on the face everyone was relying for information as to their progress on radio reports from down in the Cwm. At Camp 5, Mick Burke, Martin Boysen and Pete Boardman and Pertemba were listening in every half-hour to progress reports. Mick peered out of the box doorway and up at the dark looming Rock Band 'Well, if they don't make it, they should have their first bounce around here'. Meanwhile, 600 m lower down Dave Clarke and Ronnie Richards crouched over their radio in the main street of Camp 4.

During the traverse, the watchers saw a large powder snow avalanche sweep down from the summit - it plummeted past the two figures now just visible to the naked eye from Camp 2. Then Doug and Dougal disappeared into the S Summit Gully. Hours later, at 3pm they reappeared briefly on the S Summit, only to move from view over the ridge into China. Occasionally a puff of snow appeared in the wind over the summit ridge. Soon the surmise was made by the watchers at Camp 2, Doug and Dougal were going for the summit. In the late afternoon light, 2 figures could just be seen moving, amazingly, unbelievably, up along the ridge. The light was failing and Chris crackled through the radio to the next summit bid team to prepare for a rescue and to load up with pain killers for potential frost-bite. How would Doug and Dougal survive a bivouac at 8,750m?

Next morning the second team found them inside the box at Camp 6, their minds still numb and speech slurred after a night without sleep and without much oxygen. But their imaginations were full of a lifetime sight - sunset from the summit - the interminable brown and silver rivers of Tibet, and a myriad of sunsets, sun shifting behind the plumed storm clouds of Nepal. They told of their near failure when at the foot of the gully Dougal's mask had frozen solid, blocking his oxygen supply and for an hour they had struggled to repair it. They told of the deep time-consuming powder snow in the gully, of the wind slab and the cornices, and of the Chinese maypole on the summit. They told of hallucinations in the snow-hole, of Doug holding a conversation with his feet, and of Dougal's conviction that Dave Clarke was with them, but without his usual issue of warm, life preserving down! However, unlike Doug, Dougal was wearing a down suit. In the heat of the afternoon Doug and Dougal were back at Camp 2, after 1,800m of sliding down the face on the ropes, involving a disciplined concentration on the ritual of clipping and unclipping their friction brakes with sensitive rewarmed fingers. Soon they were in the tender care of Dr Charles Clarke who, clad in a suit of red silk, swept around them with a bowl of warm water. In one bold and daring push Doug and Dougal had maintained the upward momentum of the whole expedition by reaching the summit within 33 days of Base Camp being established.

Despite the jubilation and the sense of personal success he must have felt at having co-ordinated and planned the ascent of the route, Chris now felt an added responsibility for the expedition. He intended to recognise the personal ambitions of the other team members and planned for 3 subsequent summit bids. And he was worried about Mick, who by mid afternoon still had not arrived at Camp 6 to join Martin, Pete and Pertemba.

But when Mick arrived at 4pm many fears were allayed. He was his usual chirpy self. He had been carrying extra camera equipment, had been readjusting the fixed line, had been helping Lakpa Dorje Sherpa whose oxygen apparatus had failed and his own oxygen had run out when he was 60 m below the Camp. He could see the hardworn line of Doug and Dougal's steps stretching beckoningly upwards. With the summit of the highest mountain on earth so accessible, what mountaineer would deny himself at least a try?

By dawn the following morning a chain of circumstances had been set in motion. Pete and Pertemba had reached the end of the fixed ropes and were convinced that oxygen difficulties had forced Martin and Mick to retreat. There was no-one in sight. They kicked away the spindrift from the tracks and moved unroped away from the end of the fixed ropes across the 300m traverse to the S Summit Gully. There they jumared gratefully up a fixed line hanging over a rock step in the gully. Looking down they could see a solitary sitting figure far back across the traverse and presumed it was Martin watching their progress before he turned back disappointedly to Camp 6. Meanwhile for those back at Camp 2 the view lacked the sunlit immediacy of 2 days before. The weather was changing and the cloud level was down to 8,200m.

At 10am Pete and Pertemba were standing on the S Summit but Pertemba's wayward oxygen set was re-enacting Dougal's ice block and it was 1 ½ hours and several cold fingers later before they began, roped now, to move along the summit ridge. They were not to be greeted on the summit by the shifting light patterns of a great panorama. Instead, visibility was down to 50 m and the sun was shining through the clouds above them. Pertemba attached a Nepalese flag to the maypole.

Haston on the Hillary step

On their descent they were amazed to see Mick through the mist. He was sitting on the snow only a few hundred metres down an easy angled snow­slope from the summit. He seemed cheerful, congratulated them and asked them to go back to the summit with him so he could do some filming. They declined thinking that since they were moving roped and he was so near the summit, that he would soon catch them up again as they pitched the descent. He asked them to wait for him by the big rock of the S Summit. Pete said 'See you soon' and they moved back down the ridge to the S Summit. Shortly after they had left him, the weather began to deteriorate. The sky and cornices and whirling snow merged together, visibility was reduced to 3 metres and all tracks were obliterated.

They waited nearly 1 ½ hours before deciding to go down. They very nearly did not get back. They had difficulty in finding the top of the gully, found the top of the fixed rope over the rock step in the dark and were covered by 2 powder snow avalanches whilst moving blindly down and across the traverse. It was dark when they found the end of the fixed ropes. Moving across the fixed rope, Pertemba lost a crampon and Pete fell down a rock step to be held on the rope. One of the sections of fixed rope had been swept away. Martin was waiting for them at Camp 6. He had turned back when his oxygen equipment had failed and his crampon had fallen off. Pete and Pertemba arrived back at 7:30 at night and the 3 of them were pinned down at the camp for a whole day and 2 nights whilst the storm continued unabated. Pertemba was snow-blind and Pete could not feel his feet. Martin suffered frost-bite in his fingers whilst clearing the snow that was burying the boxes as avalanches poured past and over the edge of the Rock Band.

When the storm finally cleared on the morning of 28 September there was no chance of Mick having survived. Camp 4 had been evacuated and half the tents at Camp 2 had been destroyed by the blast from an avalanche from Nuptse. Bonington ordered the mountain to be cleared. The climbers remaining on the Face began painfully to descend. Within 2 days the entire ex­pedition was back at Base Camp.

What had happened to Mick? Perhaps the cornices on the Tibetan side of the ridge or the fragile one-foot wind slab on the Nepal side had collapsed, the fixed line over the Hillary Step had failed, or perhaps Mick, wearing glasses, blinded by the spindrift, had lost his way on the summit dome. He had taken a decision which any of the climbers on the expedition would have made, to try for the summit alone. To us, the question was - was the climb worth Mick's death? But back home, in the mountaineering press, other debates continue. Did Everest, its success, adventure and tragedy, transcend the ethical debates? Was a big, costly logistical pyramid of men and supplies justified in 1975 when so much was achieved elsewhere in the Himalaya that year by bold lightweight expeditions on Gasherbrum 1 and Dunagiri? Do the sherpas and their country suffer from the impact of involvement with such an onslaught of capitalist commercial risk-takers? Was it more than a 'vertically integrated crowd control?'

The summit ridge with the S summit and Lhotse

The expedition owed much of its success to good weather high up (that only broke just when the expedition was at its most extended). It owed its success to Chris's leadership, to Bob Stoodley and Ronnie Richards getting the gear out, to Dave Clarke organising the equipment, to Mike Thompson organising the food, to Tut and Nick climbing the Rock Band, to the cool panache of Doug and Dougal's summit push, to hundreds of helpers and well-wishers in Britain and Nepal, and to Barclays Bank. It owed its success to climbers working together and trusting each other as friends. And it owed its success to the Sherpas whose involvement with the expedition and its success was total and euphoric - no Sherpas had been killed on the mountain, a Sherpa had reached the summit, they had been paid well and given fine equipment, the climb was over early and there was still good money to be made in the trekking season. The effect on us of their inherent happiness and reliability was more powerful than the impact of any of our misguided Western values on them. The Sherpas had been treated as equals and mutual respect and co-operation resulted. Their success was our success and ours was theirs.

And the mountain? The great drifting snows of winter soon erase the marks of man's ant-like scratchings. Everest's beauty leaves a picturehouse of memories that last a lifetime. Yet, Everest is a big mountain and the SW Face in 1975 required heavyweight tactics. Access to its secrets is only achieved after a 600 m ice-fall and a 2-mile walk up the W Cwm at 6,400m. And high on its slopes there is only a narrow boundary between a controlled and an uncontrolled situation that can be crossed irreversibly within minutes. Beyond the fixed ropes there is total Alpine commitment.

And the publicity? No climbing of Everest can ever be a private affair. Everest, the myth, with its magic and history fills the corners of the minds of many people - as the sunset from the summit filled the minds of Doug and Dougal and as at the end of the expedition, the experience of Everest was a mixture of awe, relief, happiness and sadness for the long lines of climbers who toiled back across the freshly fallen snow, back down the W Cwm. Occasionally stopping and glancing back.

The full report can be read via the Digital Alpine Journal.



'Something the Artist Wishes to Say' - Article Extract

Everest from Rongbuk

'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.