The legend that surrounds George Mallory’s life continues today with the eternal question: could he have reached the summit of Mount Everest on 8 June 1924? On that fateful morning almost three years to the day after Mallory’s first vision of Everest, the clouds closed around him and his partner Sandy Irvine as they made their final summit bid, never to be seen again. Over time he has attained the status of legend, a man of inspirational courage and determination who had gone forward to meet his destiny. This was Mallory’s third expedition to Everest which first began in 1921, the mountain had occupied four years of his life and had become an obsession.
However, aside from climbing, Mallory had lead a rich diverse and exciting 37 years of life. This important portrait of Mallory from 1913, was painted at a time when he was at the centre of the Bloomsbury group of artists and their inner circle of close friends and intellectuals which included Lytton and James Strachey, Maynard and Geoffrey Keynes (climbing partner to Mallory), Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell her sister Virginia Woolf and, of course, Duncan Grant.
Mallory was up at Magdalene College in Cambridge from 1905-1909 and was a year younger than Duncan Grant, whom he had met in his last year at Cambridge through Grant’s cousin, James. At Cambridge, Mallory immersed himself into university life as a scholar, however, ‘he was unusual in showing a keen interest in sport. For the intellectuals and bloods, as the sportsmen were known, normally had little to do with each other’ (Peter and Lenny Gillman, The Wildest Dream, London, 2000, p. 29). At Cambridge he was renowned for the extraordinary and delicate beauty of his face and his strong physique, something which no doubt attracted Grant to him. Interestingly in this period of Mallory’s life there was a notion that he had homosexual tendencies. At the time, Cambridge was ‘predominantly a male institution that had resisted the inclusion of women’ (ibid., p. 45). Mallory’s circle of friends including his tutor Arthur Benson had deep friendships amongst themselves which included embracing relationships across the sexual spectrum. ‘Mallory’s daughter Clare suggests that ‘my father didn’t mind what his gay friends did with one another. He wasn’t gay, and he just didn’t want to do it himself’’ (ibid., p. 45). However, a few biographies from the non-mountaineering world have indicated that Mallory had shown few inhibitions, ‘stating as a fact that Mallory had at least one homosexual affair’ (ibid., p. 46).
Duncan Grant and Mallory rapidly became close friends and this continued after Cambridge, when, in 1910, Mallory became a school master at Charterhouse teaching History, Maths, French and Latin. In 1911, Grant had moved into a new studio at 38 Brunswick Square. It was here that he painted the portrait of Mallory which was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery. This portrait depicts Mallory naked from the waist up with his arms encircling his knees. The eclectic Grant painted it in a pointillist style and the angle of Mallory’s nose and eyes closely resemble those in a portrait of Mallory by Simon Bussy from the same time. Grant was at this moment influenced by the two post-Impressionist shows arranged by Roger Fry in 1910 and 1912, and this new style of painting had immediate impact on the direction of his painting. The first Post-Impressionist show, held at the Grafton galleries included works by Manet, including A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, works by Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, including The Sunfowers and Dr Gachet. The second Post-Impressionist exhibition included a section of English artists among them Wyndham Lewis, Henry Lamb, Spencer Gore, Stanley Spencer, Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry and Duncan Grant. Grant was generally praised as the most talented of this group through his wavering between impressionism and modernism.
The present portrait of Mallory executed in a similar pointillist style to the portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, shows Mallory naked, in a full-length pose, one leg resting over the other, an arm reaching down to grasp his ankles. Richard Shone has suggested this painting is most likely to have been painted before 1913, as Grant moved on from his pointillist style by the summer of 1912. At the same period Mallory also posed for a series of nude photographs which Grant took at Brunswick Square. The poses are similar to those of the paintings. Later in life, Grant made it known that Mallory had enjoyed posing for him: ‘George was a beautiful creature who was perfectly willing to sit for me’. He added that Mallory was not narcissistic, but it was ‘obvious’ he liked to be admired. This accords with a letter from Mallory thanking Grant for sending him one of the photographs. Mallory complained that it did not show enough detail and asked Grant to send him the negatives so that he could make some prints himself, adding ‘I am profoundly interested in the nude me’ (ibid., p. 97).
Mallory, like many of his generation, fought on the Western Front from 1916 and survived 16 months: this no doubt drove him to find a new direction in his later life and for new experiences, and Everest represented the final frontier. Even Grant, though he was a pacifist, wanted to help the war effort in some way. He told Mallory he wanted to become an interpreter, but was turned down because he could not speak German! Mallory and Grant continued to meet and correspond with each other over the years and at one point Grant jokingly suggested that he should accompany Mallory on the fateful 1924 expedition to Everest as the expedition’s artist.