On the 17th April 1805, twenty one year old aspiring artist Charles Gough and his dog Foxie attempted the ascent of Helvellyn without the aid of a guide. A wilful venturesome spirit, his impertinence would claim his life. Three months later near Red Tarn, the remains of his body and his belongings were discovered by a Shepherd responding to Foxie's cries who was found beside her master. The young artist had died in search of the perfect view.
The circumstances surrounding Gough's end, his act of individualism and confrontation with the natural world would see him made famous in death. Enamoured and lured by the promise of an authentic aesthetic experience, the young artist had fought nature and lost, over-awed by beauty and consumed by the savagery of the landscape. A martyr to the Romantic ideal, his "heroic" act defined the zeitgeist of the time and inspired countless poets and artists.
Gough's act was in defiance of the mountain, refusing to stand in its shadow, choosing instead to risk death and stand atop and conquer or be conquered. An accidental pioneer in frontier territory, his desire to capture the unexplored would see him attempt to combine the two disciplines of Mountaineering and Painting. Seemingly premature in his ambition, it would be some forty five years later before man would successfully work at elevation and commit to canvas a view one had to earn the right to paint.
Big or small, man had identified his right to seek out and experience all that would spark his imagination or else claim his life in the process. Gough's passing was to become punctuation on the pages of history that are now being retold and rediscovered by gallery owners like Mr William Mitchell. "These were no ordinary landscapes" says the softly spoken scholar, whom along with his brother James, shares Directorship of their third generation family business that was founded in 1931 by their grandfather John Mitchell, now situated in the heart of London's Mayfair on Avery Row.
Specialising in buying and selling European and British pictures from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, a visit to the gallery is to return to a style of presentation that is seldom seen in today's world. Numerous original works by Dutch & Flemish Old Masters, Mountain scenes are hung, propped, stacked and fill much of the available space. "Being surrounded by art at work makes it easier to understand why serious collectors become obsessed and capricious about their treasures" says William with a smile.
Dressed in a blue shirt, silk tie and braces, the unmistakable Art Deco dial of a Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso peaks from under his shirt cuff as William raises his hand to point out the detail evident in a depiction of climbers descending Mont Blanc under a setting sun with the Chamonix valley below. Measuring 29.5 x 39.5 inches, it is all the more intriguing that a picture of such vast proportions is surpassed only by the wonder and awe of the panorama captured in oil.
Painted at approximately 3015 meters, the piece was doubtless one in a series of works captured by the artist during a two week Alpine adventure that had seen him climb and paint relentlessly without once descending into the valley floor. Signed "G Loppé 1880" in the lower right corner, the signature marks the painting out as one of the most important paintings of its kind by Gabriel Loppé, the man widely regarded as having founded the 'Peintres-Alpinistes' – or Painters-Climbers school and the first to paint at altitude.
A prolific climber, painter, photographer and Mountaineer throughout his lifetime, Loppé was also entirely self taught. Like Gough, Montpellier born Loppé was twenty one when he ventured up a mountain in the Languedoc. Arriving at the top, it could be said he was to find more than just a view of unspoiled natural beauty, but rather a window into his future, a scene that would shape the rest of the young man's life. Happening upon a group of painters sketching the summit, the impressionable Loppé was transfixed by the prospect of combining artistic expression with the challenging endeavour of climbing. He would soon go to Geneva and meet his contemporary and his friend Alexandre Calame.
"Loppé had made over forty ascents of Mont Blanc during his climbing career, which lasted until the late 1890's. Climbing into his seventies, he took his sixteen year old daughter Aline to the summit. Twenty three years later to commemorate his fiftieth year climbing, he took his granddaughter Gabrielle too – she would've been just ten years old at the time." An accomplished Mountaineer of some twenty years or more, William has stood upon many of the very same summits in the Alps which feature in the works of art that have passed through his hands.
Having recently returned from a three day ascent of the Innominata Ridge in Chamonix, it is William's personal relationship to both the paintings and the landscape they capture that excites. Relating time to place and topographical accuracy to artistic sensibility and the challenge of the climb, William is able to offer a commentary which feels inherently authentic. "The 'peintre-alpinistes' were adept at handling light in a world where a thinning atmosphere caused stronger contrasts. These "plein-air" – open air – painters battled the elements and the setting sun which offered a much smaller window of time in which to execute."
Now in its fifteenth year, we leaf through "Peaks & Glaciers" – an annual publication that offers a selection of highlights from the galleries collection of Alpine Art and Photography – when William pauses momentarily to introduce a piece which shows the Jungfrau as seen from Interlaken. Dated 1852, it is by the artist whom had first ignited William's fascination with Alpine Art, who also happens to be by the most important Swiss landscape painter of the early nineteenth century Alexandre Calame. "By the end of his life, three hundred pupils had passed through his studio in Geneva. A late Romantic, he was one of the earliest painters to focus on his native Alps as his subject."
Of all the "peintre-alpinistes", Calame was the most faithful in his representation and for topographical accuracy and unlike the work of his contemporary Loppé, one can feel the religious element to his work. "We know relatively little about the man. Biographical details are frequently restricted to the same themes. We know he lived in relative poverty and had one eye from the age of ten." Sometimes accompanied by Loppé and frequently painting alone, Calame spent every summer during the last twenty five years of his life painting the Alps.
"As you become more familiar with an artist you become more familiar with their palette" says William as he points to a particular shade of brown-purple-grey that features in each of Calame's paintings. "Nonetheless, a true "peintre-alpiniste" knew how to prevent his palette from making the colour scheme too cold and too blue." This time unveiling works by artists Charles-Henri Contencin and Jacques Fourcy to illustrate his point, both captured at an elevation in excess of 3,000m.
Separated by only eight years, Contencin and Fourcy would share a similar relationship to Calame – the Romantic – and Loppé the Explorer. Students and followers of Loppé, with both Fourcy and Concentin there is an immediacy to the work which is likely explained by both artists choosing not to conduct any preparatory studies and working directly onto canvas.
Consequently both Fourcy and Contencin present a more rugged, masculine and contemporary view of the landscape at altitude. With Fourcy there's a tactility and malleability evident in the thick impasto, a result of the artists choosing to use a palette knife in their work. "Fourcy's work could be said to err towards drama, sheer scale and atmosphere". Whereas Contencin's choosing to include Chalets, Ski tracks and hamlets feel more storied, human and connected. Although there is an absence of life, there is evidence.
While the rules of landscape painting no longer apply to Alpine Art, there's a consistency in the scene where solitude reigns supreme, for life at altitude is far beyond the Industrialised world which awakens and blooms in the valley below. The earth we move, the light we seek fades and yet the mountain remains: Steadfast, enchanting, enticing and looming.
It has been said that Mountaineering has a lot to do with being comfortable in uncomfortable places. To stand and face death while marvelling at the beauty and immensity of the landscape with one's back turned to the serac that hangs overhead. To strive for the summit and to return, all too briefly as the light fades. A race to the bottom, which in the end is only ever with oneself. Where the mind goes, the man follows, the rest we will find along the way.
As we steal one last glimpse of a piece by Jacques Fourcy destined for Hong Kong, a look of solitude wears easily on William's face, his eyes trace the line of the mountain, no doubt charting the route he took last time, how he may do it differently when he returns, following as he does in the footsteps of those great artists, who like William, had left a piece of their heart on the mountainside.
To view a fine selection of European and British pictures from the 17th to 19th centuries – or any of the works featured – you are encouraged to enquire or to book an appointment to meet with William and James at their gallery at 17 Avery Row, Brook Street. John Mitchell Fine Paintings are also available to advise on auctions, framing, conservation and valuations.