Antenna A wedding gift to Everest’s tragic hero

Antenna: A wedding gift to Everest’s tragic hero

In her regular column, Meredith Etherington-Smith tells the stories of two very different pieces with fascinating connections to the Bloomsbury Group, the Keynes family and a 1924 tragedy on Mount Everest

‘Why do you want to climb Everest?’ George Mallory (1886-1924) was once asked. ‘Because it’s there,’ he replied, encapsulating the enduring appeal of mountaineering and the pull of becoming the first man to scale the world’s highest peak. 

On 8 June 1924, it looked like Mallory’s wish would come true as he and Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine, members of the British Mount Everest Expedition, made a third attempt to write their names into history by reaching the summit of Mount Everest.

The two men were observed by a fellow member of the expedition on the mountain’s North-East ridge, tiny black dots just 800 feet from their ultimate goal. Then they disappeared. Many searches were made for their bodies over the years, until finally, in 1999, Mallory’s frozen and sun-bleached remains were discovered at 26,760 feet. To this day, nobody knows whether Mallory and Irvine made a successful first ascent of the mountain.

The dashing young George Mallory (1886-1924). Photograph sold for £1,265 on 29 April 1999 at Christie’s in London

The dashing young George Mallory (1886-1924). Photograph sold for £1,265 on 29 April 1999 at Christie’s in London

The son of a Cheshire vicar, George Mallory was taught to climb by R.L.G. Irving, a master at Winchester School, which awarded Mallory a mathematics scholarship. Having gone on to study at Magdalene College, Cambridge, Mallory became friendly with the Bloomsbury set, a group of English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists that included Maynard Keynes, Geoffrey Langdon Keynes, Rupert Brooke, Duncan Grant, and Lytton and James Strachey.

With his good looks, athleticism and prowess as an oarsman, the budding mountaineer attracted plenty of admirers. ‘Mon dieu! — George Mallory!’ wrote Lytton Strachey. ‘He’s six foot high, with the body of an athlete by Praxiteles, and a face — oh incredible — the mystery of Botticelli, the refinement and delicacy of a Chinese print, the youth and piquancy of an unimaginable English boy.’

In 1910, Mallory got a job as a teacher at Charterhouse School, and four years later married Ruth Turner. They took their vows just six days before Britain went to war with Germany. As a wedding present Geoffrey Keynes gave the couple Boxers, a distinctive relief in Portland stone of two boys entangled in a quasi-erotic fight. The piece had been carved in 1913 by Eric Gill, a leading modernist artist who combined both art and craft in his work.

Eric Gill, A.R.A. (1882-1940), Boxers, carved between 15 May and 3 July 1913, painted by the artist between 1914 and 1915. 22  in (55.9  cm) high. Estimate £400,000-600,000. This lot is offered in Modern British Art Evening Sale on 19 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

Eric Gill, A.R.A. (1882-1940), Boxers, carved between 15 May and 3 July 1913, painted by the artist between 1914 and 1915. 22 in (55.9 cm) high. Estimate: £400,000-600,000. This lot is offered in Modern British Art Evening Sale on 19 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

Gill had found it difficult to sell the bas relief and having grown tired of it taking up space in his studio, he decided to colour the piece — one figure in red, the other in yellow, against a dark blue background. Keynes, who was a friend and supporter of Gill, was not keen on the colours, which proved difficult to remove, as Gill had warned they would be. In a letter to Keynes (below), however, Mallory wrote that he was ‘knocked out’ by the colours at first, and although he made a later attempt to remove them, traces are still very apparent.

A letter dated 29 April 1915 from George Mallory to Geoffrey Keynes, in which he talks about the Eric Gill bas relief, and expresses his sorrow at the death of their mutual friend, the war poet Rupert Brooke

A letter dated 29 April 1915 from George Mallory to Geoffrey Keynes, in which he talks about the Eric Gill bas relief, and expresses his sorrow at the death of their mutual friend, the war poet Rupert Brooke

After the war, in which he fought with distinction at the Battle of the Somme, Mallory returned to Charterhouse, where his pupils before the conflict had included the writer Robert Graves. In his memoir Goodbye to all That, Graves remembered Mallory as being friendly with his pupils and treating them like adults.

Mallory resigned his post at the school in 1921 in order to join the first British Mount Everest Expedition, which was led by Charles Howard-Bury. Planned as a reconnaissance mission to find the best route for ascending the mountain, the expedition produced the first accurate maps of the region around Everest.

After attempting to make a living through writing and lecturing, Mallory returned to Cambridge in 1923 as a lecturer in the Extramural Studies Department. He continued making regular climbing expeditions in Britain.

‘After the tragedy of Everest Ruth Mallory had no place for the heavy stone and returned it to me’ — Geoffrey Langdon Keynes

In 1924, he obtained leave of absence from his post in Cambridge to join the British Mount Everest Expedition of that year. Mallory was 37 by this time and believed it would be his last chance to scale the mountain.

On 1 June, Mallory and Captain Geoffrey Bruce set off on their first attempt on the summit, which was aborted after Camp 5. The next day Edward Norton and Dr Howard Somervell set off on a second summit attempt, and in perfect weather Norton managed to reach 28,120 feet without oxygen, a new record height. A few days later, on the third attempt, tragedy struck.

When news reached Ruth Mallory that her husband and his climbing companion had been lost on Everest, she decided to return the Eric Gill bas relief to Geoffrey Keynes. In his autobiography, Keynes confirmed that after the tragedy on Everest his friend’s wife ‘had no place for the heavy stone and returned it to me’.

Duncan Grant (1885-1978), Gramophone cabinet, painted circa 1926-1928. 26½ x 18⅝ x 20 in (92.7 x 47.3 x 50.8 cm). Estimate £40,000-60,000. Offered in the Modern British Art Day Sale on 20 November at Christie’s in London

Duncan Grant (1885-1978), Gramophone cabinet, painted circa 1926-1928. 26½ x 18⅝ x 20 in (92.7 x 47.3 x 50.8 cm). Estimate: £40,000-60,000. Offered in the Modern British Art Day Sale on 20 November at Christie’s in London

The second Bloomsbury connection is a gramophone cabinet with painted oak panels by Duncan Grant in a free-form style. The cabinet was acquired directly from Grant by John Maynard Keynes, whom Grant first met in 1908 and became close to. The founder of modern macroeconomics gave the cabinet to his wife, Lydia Lopokova, the ballet dancer who was one of the stars of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. She very probably used it in her rehearsal studio at Tilton, the farmhouse she and her husband bought next door to Charleston, the East Sussex farmhouse that became the country retreat for the Bloomsbury set.

Tilton was lent regularly to Geoffrey Keynes, Maynard’s brother, as a holiday home to enjoy with his wife Margaret and their four boys. Richard, their eldest son, remembers listening to Mozart and Paul Robeson spirituals on the gramophone.

After John Maynard Keynes’s death in 1946, the gramophone remained with Lydia at Tilton until the 1970s, when it was decided to remove special items into safe-keeping. It then passed to Stephen Keynes, Geoffrey’s youngest son and Maynard's godson, and remained with him until his death in 2017.