‘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 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
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.
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.
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’.
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
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.