A couple of hundred years ago, it was fashionable to travel to the Alps, don your finest tweed jacket, breeches and nailed boots, and go to walk up a mountain like Mont Blanc. For some, it became an obligatory part of the Grand Tour, a rite of passage for many of the rich. John Auldjo (1805-1886) was born to a prosperous family in Montreal, Canada, but was orphaned at the age of sixteen, and went to live with his godparents in London.
The following year, Auldjo entered Trinity College in Cambridge University. When he graduated, having secured himself a place to train further as a lawyer, he departed on his Grand Tour. Early on he decided to hire six local guides and climb Mont Blanc, giving him the opportunity to enjoy his two passions, for sketching and painting, and geology. He did this on 8-9 August 1827, making sketches during the ascent, and the party shared a bottle of champagne on the summit, in true Grand Tour style.
Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Western Europe, its summit reaching 4,808 metres (nearly 16,000 feet). His was only the fourteenth known successful ascent, although the first had been back in 1786, by Jacques Balmat and Dr Michel Paccard from nearby Chamonix.
Rather than just move on to the next formative experience of his travels, what Auldjo did next was different. He turned his sketches and notes into an illustrated account, which was published in 1828, and ran successfully through three editions. It was the first time the wider public had heard of Alpine mountaineering, and an important milestone in popularising the pursuit.
Auldjo approached his objective methodically, producing several detailed pencil and wash views which he carefully labelled. He also provided the drawing for this print of a Map of the mountains and glaciers which surround the valley of Chamonix (1830), which was published in his book, Narrative of an Ascent to the Summit of Mont Blanc, on the 8th and 9th August, 1827. Mont Blanc is at the lower left.
Surviving original paintings are now in the collection of the Alpine Club in London, and formed the basis for this lithograph of Mountaineers Scaling a Wall of Ice above a Precipice (1828).
Auldjo’s guides weren’t allowed to let them go hungry, or particularly sober. The Party Breakfasting on a Bridge of Snow Between Two Cliffs (1828) shows them enjoying a hearty meal, and their provisions included twenty bottles of red wine, eighteen chickens and a large quantity of cheese.
By modern standards, the ascent was hardly technically challenging, but when all that’s keeping your boots from slipping on ice are some double-headed screws in their soles, The Party Negotiating a Cliff (1828) is scarier than it looks.
Lightweight modern aids to negotiating ice obstacles didn’t exist, so Traversing a Gap in a Glacier (1828) must have demanded plenty of pluck.
John Auldjo apparently didn’t need to work for a living, and resided much of the time in Naples, where he socialised with the likes of Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton. He never lost his love for the mountains, though, and in 1831 painted views of Mount Vesuvius during one of its more active periods. Those led to another book, and fellowships of the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society. By 1870, he had moved to Geneva, where he died in 1886.
Auldjo was one of several artists who recorded their early ascents of European mountains in paint. Sadly, few of these works are now accessible, but I finish with two of the more striking examples.
Gabriel Loppé’s Crevasses Below the Grands Mulets, Ascent of Mont Blanc was painted between 1875-83, and shows a view at an altitude of around 3,000 metres (10,000 feet), now the site of a refuge hut or bothy. Loppé was both a painter and mountaineer, and became the first foreign member of the prestigious Alpine Club in London. From the 1850s, he was an avid climber, and completed over forty ascents of Mont Blanc, often making oil sketches when climbing.
Marko Pernhart’s undated painting of Triglav III shows the lower summit of this mountain which at 2,864 metres (9,400 feet) is the highest in Slovenia and the Julian Alps. Its first ascent was recorded in 1778, and it was another peak which became popular during the nineteenth century. Unlike Loppé, Pernhart wasn’t a mountaineer, but a successful Austrian landscape painter.
By the end of the nineteenth century, mountaineering was well established as a highly respectable activity across much of Europe.