Himalayan Climber, Himalayan Artist

T H Somervell 1890-1975

David Seddon

Theodore Howard Somervell was Vice-President of the Himalayan Club (1942-43) and President of the Alpine Club (1962-65). He was also an artist, musician and an author writing four books, eleven papers on his mountain experiences and sixteen medical papers. Those aware of Somervell's artistic output think of him as a painter of Himalayan scenes but in fact he painted in India, the Alps, Lake District in Britain and almost wherever he travelled.

After Rugby School, Somervell was an undergraduate at Cambridge and graduated with a double first in Natural Sciences in 1912. He completed his studies at University College Hospital, London. Although he considered enlisting in 1914, he was advised to qualify first. The Army List indicates that he was commissioned as a Captain in the Territorial Army in November 1915. He was within a few miles of the front line as the battle of the Somme began on July 1916 and on one occasion, operated almost continuously for 70 hours. In the winter of 1916 he saw many hundreds of soldiers with trench foot observing that tetanus would sometimes complicate this condition. By February 1917 his unit was part of the British Fourth Army and in March 1918 this was to bear the brunt of the final German offensive. At the time of the Armistice he was on leave in the Lake District. He completed his surgical training in Liverpool and Leeds, and was awarded Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1920.

Himalayan Climber

He was working at University College Hospital in London when he heard that he had been invited to join the 1922 Everest expedition. He would have to travel to Darjeeling at his own expense. From there, all costs would be met by the expedition committee. He was 'transported with joy' at this news and responded that as his salary was £150 a year he would be quite happy to comply with this requirement and might even be able to support himself further by selling paintings of the expedition.

In After Everest he gives his own account of the avalanche on 7th June 1922, which killed 7 porters and ended the third attempt on the summit of the expedition of that year. With Mallory and Norton, he had already taken part in the first summit attempt and on 21st May reached almost 27,000 feet without supplementary oxygen. Mallory had already written an account of the accident for The Assault on Everest:1922 but Somervell writing more than ten years later makes a number of important observations. He records that the initial walk of half a mile from Camp III to the foot of the slopes leading to the North Col took 2 hours through '...snow of a most unpleasant texture...' but higher up the '...snow trod firmer...we were gaining height more rapidly than we thought the condition of the snow would allow...'(4,5). This firmer snow was almost certainly wind slab, that is snow transported by the wind and deposited usually on a lee slope. After light wind, it may feel like powder snow but after strong winds, the original snow crystals have been so fragmented and packed down so densely that the edge of a boot may barely grip. Mallory described 'unremitting snowfall...' and '...fine glistening particles driven by the wind through our (tent) walls..' on the nights of June 3rd and 4th (5).

Once on the initial slopes below the North Col, Mallory, Somervell and Crawford excavated trenches to see if they could trigger an avalanche. They could not and feeling secure they began with one porter to climb up towards the North Col. The angle of the slope began to ease and with the firm surface underfoot their spirits rose. Somervell was leading and about 600 feet beneath the North Col when '....with a subdued report ominous in the softness of its violence, a crack suddenly appeared about 20 feet above me. The snow on which I was standing began to move, slowly at first then faster'(4). Somervell and his rope were lucky. They were able to extricate themselves. The thirteen porters below were less fortunate. The avalanche swept them over an ice cliff and seven were killed. The weight of the first rope of four men had not been enough to trigger the avalanche but once the whole party was on the slope the combined weight of seventeen men and equipment was. Ruttledge was later to write that the avalanche had occurred because the snow slopes beneath the North Col had been softened by the warm winds of the monsoon (6). This was not a wet snow avalanche. What Somervell had seen and heard was the fracture of a slab avalanche.

Somervell and Crawford left the expedition a few days before its departure from Rongbuk to explore the valleys and mountains to the north of Kangchenjunga. Despite the arrival of the monsoon they were able to climb five peaks over 18,000 feet before crossing the Lhonak la and returning to Kalimpong (7).

After the 1922 Everest expedition, and with £60 in his pocket, he travelled through India and eventually arrived at the town of Neyyoor in the southern tip of India. He had arranged to meet a surgeon at Neyyoor Hospital whom he had met in England and while there took on some of his workload. Somervell's life was to change forthwith. His ambition had, up to that time, been to secure an appointment as a consultant surgeon and on his return to Britain, he was offered just such an appointment at University College Hospital, London. Yet he turned his back on everything such an appointment could offer to accept a post as Medical Missionary at Neyyoor. He was to devote his professional life to the health and welfare of the people of southern India. A few young doctors today might spend some months or a year in such a post before returning to practice in the United Kingdom.

His life and work at Neyyoor General Hospital is well described in three books and these give insight into the culture and complexities of rural life in southern India at that time (4,8,9). Suffice it to say that he was not just a general surgeon. He was orthopaedic surgeon, anaesthetist, obstetrician and physician as well as managing epidemics of cholera and malaria. He would often perform very major operations under spinal anaesthetic in preference to a general (inhaled) anaesthetic possibly because the latter carried very much more risk than today(10). He used sulpha antibiotic powder at the end of abdominal operations but it is very unlikely that he had access to penicillin certainly until well after the Second World War. A successful operation would depend upon scrupulous attention to aseptic surgical technique. He purchased X-ray equipment that was the only such equipment available to many millions of people in southern India. He became particularly skilled in the surgical management of duodenal ulcer and wrote a book and several papers on the subject. He even had an operation for duodenal ulcer named after him. The 'Somervell' operation, now no longer performed, was a procedure which aimed to reduce the blood supply of the stomach, and hence its acidity. It may have worked more by severing the nerves that lie adjacent to the blood vessels than by reducing the blood supply to the stomach itself(11). He also wrote papers on subjects as diverse as the surgical management of tuberculosis and cancer of the mouth and jaw and hosted a meeting of the Christian Medical Association in Kodaikanal, a hill station near Neyyoor, in May 1934. During the 1924 expedition, he attempted to measure oxygen and carbon dioxide from the lungs of the climbers at various altitudes (12).

The pressures of such work should not be underestimated. He once saw 150 new patients in 13 hours. He performed many thousand of major operations himself and although supported by other surgeons trained in Britain, and the nursing skills of his wife, he would frequently bear the responsibility for this huge workload alone (13).

He was selected again for Everest in 1924 and Arthur Hinks, secretary of the Mount Everest Committee wrote to congratulate him and ask for a pastel sketch from the summit. On 23 May, and with Camp IV on the North Col only just established, Hazard returned to Camp III with the disturbing news that four porters were marooned at Camp IV(14). Of course this expedition is remembered for the loss of Mallory and Irvine on June 8th and not for the rescue of the porters on May 24th. Yet it is interesting to speculate as to what must have gone through the minds of Norton and the others at Camp III in the hours before the rescue. To make no attempt to help these men would have been unthinkable. If some or all of the porters perished during the descent, the expedition would almost certainly be finished and open to censure on its return. The climbers might return to the North Col but it would be difficult, if not impossible, to establish the higher camps unsupported. Norton would have also weighed up the risks that the rescue would pose to those climbing back to the North Col. He selected his most able climbers, Mallory and Somervell (15), and he must have appreciated that if accident befell them, the expedition would also be as good as over. The following morning they effected the rescue of four frightened, frost-bitten men with no little demonstration of cool and courageous mountaineering skill on the part of Somervell. This is well described by Norton and Younghusband (16-17).

Seven days later on 1 June, Somervell and Norton with Odell, Irvine and six porters in support moved up to Camp IV. Camp V had already been established by Bruce and Mallory. Norton and Somervell occupied camp V on June 2nd and the following day, and with three porters, established Camp VI. On 4 June, Norton and Somervell, without supplementary oxygen, reached a height of over 28,000 feet with Norton going a little higher than his companion (18). While Norton and Somervell had been engaged in their summit attempt, Mallory and Bruce had organised as many of the porters as were available to transport oxygen cylinders and apparatus to Camp IV. Mallory and Irvine left for their summit attempt on 6 June and were last seen by Odell on 8 June.

Many years later, Younghusband conjectured that but for the exertions of the rescue, Norton and Somervell might have climbed higher (19). Leaving that aside, could they have gone higher with supplementary oxygen? In the deliberations that followed the rescue, Norton records in The Fight for Everest: 1924 that the climbers would eschew the use of bottled oxygen altogether as the apparatus and cylinders had yet to be transported to the North Col (20). However, after establishing Camp V with Geoffrey Bruce, Mallory had descended to Camp III specifically to expedite the transport of this equipment to Camp IV. Norton and Somervell were not great 'believers' in bottled oxygen but could they perhaps have climbed higher if this had been available to them?

Although not involved in any major Himalayan expeditions after 1924, Somervell continued to explore and climb sometimes with his family, sometimes with friends, sometimes on his own. In 1926, Somervell, Hugh Ruttledge and Roger Wilson explored the north eastern side of Nanda Devi. Somervell contributed some notes to Ruttledge's account of this expedition commenting on the huge North East face of Nanda Devi and the North face of Nanda Kot (21-22). In 1928 he was in Sikkim with William Allsup, a founder member of the Himalayan Club. They trekked into the Prek chu and camped below the Guicha la before attempting the north ridge of Pandim from the Guicha la itself. This proved a complex mass of seracs and gendarmes and a hopeless line of ascent. So they moved to the Kang la hoping to make the second ascent of Kabru but with Allsup ill, Somervell climbed and sketched alone. In 1933, while his wife was in England, he travelled over the Tragbal and Burzil passes wanting to '....enjoy Nanga Parbat, not to climb it - to paint it, not to struggle with it...' From the Rupal nala he climbed a number of lower peaks (23). In 1943, he returned to Darjeeling with his family and took a party onto the Singalila ridge '....sketching at every opportunity...'. His last visit to the Himalaya was to Kullu and Lahaul in 1944 but it seems possible that he travelled to Nepal and Pakistan at some later date, as he was to paint both Dhaulagiri and Rakaposhi (24-25).

From 1948 to1953 he was Professor of Surgery at the Christian Medical College at Vellore, southern India and some of the staff from Neyyoor moved with him. He founded a climbing club for the medical students who usually climbed barefoot (26). He retired to the Lake District but did return to India for two short periods of service in 1955-56 and 1961.

Kolahoi North Peak,1951.

8. Kolahoi North Peak,1951.

Nanda Devi from Kwal Ganga ka Pahar, 1926.

9. Nanda Devi from Kwal Ganga ka Pahar, 192

Nanda Devi from south, undated.

10. Nanda Devi from south, undated.

Kangchenjunga, 1932.

11. Kangchenjunga, 1932.

Gaurishankar from northwest, 1924.

12. Gaurishankar from northwest, 1924.

Everest from the Rongbuk stream.

13. Everest from the Rongbuk stream.

Kampa Dzong, 1924.

14. Kampa Dzong, 1924.

Monastery at Tibet-Lhonak border, 1943.

15. Monastery at Tibet-Lhonak border, 1943.

Lulundi Jot, undated.

16. Lulundi Jot, undated.

Himalaya unknown scene, 1944.

17. Himalaya unknown scene, 1944.

Himalayan Artist

Somervell painted many hundreds if not thousands of paintings and his sons describe him as a compulsive sketcher and painter. He would just sit down and in 20 minutes or so complete a simple sketch or watercolour. Of some 600 titles that I have been able to identify, 203 are of the Himalaya or Tibet. One hundred and twenty six of these date or relate to the 1922 or 1924 expeditions although there are certainly another 50 or so that were exhibited at the Royal Geographical Society in April 1925 and at the Redfern Gallery, London in 1926 that I have been unable to trace. He seems to have been more active in 1922 than in 1924 with upwards of 80 paintings in March to July 1922 as opposed to 60 plus over the same period in 1924. In retirement, he continued to paint and often painted scenes that he had first seen many years previously. He exhibited almost annually at the Lake Artists Society (LAS) exhibitions in the English Lake District.

Many of his watercolours are painted on what has been described as no more than 'cheap' brown or off-white wrapping paper. However, given that Somervell was hoping to sell his paintings, it seems unlikely that he would have taken any chances with his materials and this oft repeated tale may be apocryphal. The paper has a ribbed appearance and some the off-white paper used in 1922 was watermarked 'Michallet, France'. This was a type of paper used by professional artists, sometimes referred to as 'Ingres paper' and used by Seurat amongst others. The brown paper that he used was also ribbed but does not bear a watermark. He usually painted with the ribbing set horizontally but in some paintings, the ribbing appears vertically. He used this paper as early as 1913 and was still using it in the 1970s. It particularly lends itself to the dun colours of the Tibetan landscape. Other artists such as John Sell Cotman and Edith Collingwood used a similar paper. He often used watercolour and body colour in preference to watercolour alone. He also used pastel either alone or with watercolour. Watercolour seems to have been his favoured medium in Tibet, the Himalaya and India.

He exhibited 9 paintings of the 1922 expedition at the Alpine Club in December of that year and these were exhibited again in January 1923 when the Mount Everest Committee mounted a major exhibition of 204 photographs, including 12 by Somervell and 57 of his paintings. The most expensive of these was Mount Everest's Western Shoulder at £50.10s but most were priced at 12 guineas or less. Surprisingly only 5 are of Everest itself. Twelve of the paintings relate to Somervell's foray into Sikkim after the end of the expedition including Fluted Peak, Sikkim; Jonsong Peak and Siniolchu. Half of the proceeds of the sale of his pictures went towards the Mount Everest Foundation. In 1929, his father exhibited five of Somervell's pictures at the Alpine Club in a general exhibition of mountain paintings by a variety of artists. These included Pancha Chule; Northern Peaks of Pancha Chule and Mountains near Neyyoor Travancore(dated1929, private collection). He was sole exhibitor at the Alpine Club in May 1936 (101 paintings), 1954 (103 paintings) and 1974 (94 paintings)(28,29). The 1936 exhibition included 37 paintings of southern India. He exhibited at the Alpine Club in 1947 but there no record of this exhibition has survived.

The Alpine Club in London is fortunate in possessing thirty paintings by Somervell. Of these, twenty-three date from the Everest expeditions, the majority from 1922 and possibly eleven of these were exhibited at the Alpine Club in 1923. Some were purchased by Tom Longstaff and left to the Club after his death. Of the others, there are oils, Jannu, dated 1943 and Kangchenjunga from Darjeeling, dated 1932, referred to below. There are also two watercolours of Nanda Devi one, Nanda Devi from Martoli looking west, dated 1933 and Nanda Devi from Kwal Ganga-Ka Pahar, dated 1926. The latter was probably exhibited and for sale at the Alpine Club in 1929. It was almost certainly exhibited again at the Club in 1936 and at some later date given to the Club by Somervell. The view is from about 18,000 feet on the mountain Kwal Gang-Ka Pahar about 10 miles to the north of Nanda Devi and shows the north ridges of Nanda Devi and Nanda Devi East plunging downwards. It was also exhibited the exhibition at Abbott Hall in 1997 as part of the Sublime Inspiration exhibition. The Alpine Club's collection of Somervell paintings was exhibited at the Club as part of the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest.

Abbott Hall Gallery in Kendal, Britain has thirteen very fine Somervell watercolours and one oil. All the watercolours are unframed and I presume have never been exhibited. The colours are crisp and fresh. Five of the watercolours date from 1922 or 1924. Rain over Tibetan Foothills; and Everest Base Camp are both dated 1922 but the latter is in fact a camp scene in the valley beneath Kampa Dzong. There seems to be frost on the ground and an expedition member surprised at his ablutions. There are two views of Tinki Dzong. One, Tinki, dated 1922 with a reflection of the Dzong in an adjacent lake and a chorten in the foreground and another Tinki dated both 1922 and 1924. There is a photograph of Tinki Dzong in Mount Everest, The Reconnaissance 1921 from almost exactly the same place as the first of these paintings (30). Of later works there are Gorge through Himalayas to East of Nanda Kot, dated 1926 and Everest, Lhotse and Makalu from Sandak dated 1943, a view from the Singalila ridge with the Kangshung face of Everest glimpsed beyond Makalu. The oil is Nanda Devi, and at 83.5 x 111cm, is one of Somervell's largest works. It was exhibited at the LAS in 1959 and at Abbott Hall in 1979, and was for sometime in the possession of his brother's family. The mountain is viewed from the east with the summit seen beyond the slopes of Nanda Devi East.

The Royal Geographical Society hold a large watercolour, Gaurisankar from the North West, dated 1924 although this may in fact be a painting of Menlungste (31). Another, Nanda Devi and Nanda Kot is dated 1923 and bears the signature of Somervell's father who visited India as treasurer of the London Missionary Society. Younghusband suggests in the forward of After Everest that there are paintings of Everest itself by Somervell in the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) but this does not seem to be the case.

When the 1922 Everest expedition arrived at their base camp, Somervell assisted with the organisation of stores for transport to higher camps whilst others prospected the route. He thought Everest stately rather than fantastic and was struck by the cubist appearance of the northern aspect of the mountain. In the eight days between May 1st and May 9th, he painted six oils and ten watercolours of Everest (4). Amongst these would have been Mount Everest's Western Shoulder (AC 1922 and 1923) and The Western Shoulder of Everest (AC 1923). I suspect that also amongst these are Everest from Base Camp, oil, included in The Fight for Everest: 1924 referred to below. In the possession of the Alpine Club are Ice Pinnacles, East Rongbuk Glacier, Everest, pastel, 1922 as well as a pastel, Everest from Rongbuk, and an oil of the same name, 21x35 cm. Somervell painted another but larger oil, Everest from Rongbuk, 50 x 57.5cm, possibly from the same piece of canvas, now in private ownership. Everest from the North (oil, 30x40cm, undated, private collection) shows a view of the mountain from well above the Rongbuk Glacier, high upon the slopes to the west above base camp and may date from May 1922. I have been unable to trace the remaining eight pictures that were painted in those seven days in May 1922 Unclimbed: North Side of Everest (oil, AC 1954) was probably painted at a later date. From Camp 1 he painted Pumori from Camp 1(AC 1922 and 1923). Later in the expedition and prior to his own summit attempt, he climbed to the Rapiu la from Camp III. This gave him views onto the Kangshung glacier and the South East face of Everest and South East Face of Everest (oil, AC 1954) and East Face of Everest from Point 6833m (oil), were in all probability inspired by the views he saw even though the latter is dated 1924. He also took photographs from the Rapiu la of Makalu and Chomo Lomo as well as the East face of Everest. Regrettably a sketchbook of pictures was stolen in Delhi as he travelled through India after the end of the expedition.

Two years later, he recorded sketching Chomolhari at least twice on April 9th 1924 although his brushes froze. There had been five paintings of Chomolhari in 1922. On a solitary excursion away from the main body of the expedition, he painted Gyachung Kang from Gyachung La on April 28th. He certainly painted base camp scenes again such as Everest, watercolour, in private collection. I suspect that Somervell spent less time in and around base camp in 1924 than in 1922, as there would have been no need to prospect the route. With bad weather and the rescue delaying summit attempts, he may not have had the time to seek out new views to sketch. However From Camp VI, (oil, AC 1954) must have been inspired in 1924 as there was no such high camp in 1922. Hinks had hoped that Somervell's paintings might arrive in sufficient time for slides to be prepared for the memorial lecture held in Albert Hall in October 1924. However, they arrived in late November and, of the 61, 43 were exhibited at the RGS the following April.

It is likely that Norton and Somervell had already discussed which paintings were to be used in the account of the expedition and a 'shortlist' of12 was eventually reduced to 7 together with a reproduction of a large oil of Everest dating from 1922, then hanging at the RGS. This was Everest from Base Camp and strangely the RGS not only have 'lost' this picture but also do not seem to have a record of its disposal. The remaining seven pictures used in The Fight for Everest: 1924 date from 1924 and all are watercolours. Kinchenjau from Kampa Dzong was a Christmas present from Somervell to his fiance in England but she readily loaned it to the publishers so that the reproduction could be made. Kampa Dzong (unfinished) was purchased in a more finished state by Somervell's brother Leslie and shows a scene from the hillside just behind the fortress looking south across the plains of Tibet. The hills of north Sikkim are in the distance and there is a photograph in Mount Everest 1938 taken from a comparable position (32). This picture was a particular favourite of Somervell's wife.

The Fight for Everest: 1924 was published in June 1925 and although well received there was some comment that Somervell's paintings had not been adequately acknowledged and that there should have been a clearer statement that his pictures were completed while the expedition was in the field. Hinks had been somewhat lukewarm about Somervell's paintings and at one stage did suggest to Norton that he might like to include some of his own sketches (28).

The eight paintings that illustrated The Fight for Everest: 1924 were exhibited with forty two others at the Redfern Gallery, London in April 1926. There are press cuttings that relate to this exhibition in the National Art Library but no catalogue seems to have survived. The paintings, mostly watercolours and pastels, included two views of Everest itself as well as Gaurisankar; Rongshar Chu; Forest above Sedongchen; The View from Lingga at 5.30am; A Valley in Sikkim and Climbers Camp at 26,000 feet. Only the last was not completed on the spot. The exhibition was arranged by his father and opened by William Rothenstein who also wrote an introduction to Somervell's work in the catalogue, undated. An aunt, Rachel Dora Howard, purchased A Valley in Sikkim, a simple pencil and watercolour sketch on off-white paper. Comparison with the unfinished Kampa Dzong in The Fight for Everest: 1924 shows that the sky and distant hills have been heightened in blue and some foreground detail has been completed. A Valley in Sikkim shows dense monsoon clouds and was probably painted in July 1922 when Somervell returned with through Sikkim after the end of the Everest expedition of that year.

Somervell had painted three views of Kampa Dzong during the 1922 expedition Kampa Dzong (two paintings) and Kampa Dzong, The Gateway of the Fort all exhibited at the Alpine Club in 1923. It is possible that one of these was later selected for The Fight for Everest: 1924. There were to be at least two further paintings of Kampa Dzong in 1924, one in oils and one watercolour, and both were exhibited at Abbott Hall in 1976. Both are held privately. An oil, Kampa Dzong was also exhibited at the Alpine Club in 1954 and two exhibited also at the Club possibly in 1974. There are several watercolours of Shekar Dzong, including The Holy of Holies, Shekar Monastery (AC 1923) and Shekar Dzong held by the Alpine Club, dated 1922, a view of the interior of the monastery. There is another Shekar Dzong, dated 1924, held privately that shows the fortress from the valley floor. Somervell selected Everest from Base Camp: looking south towards the Rongbuk Glacier, oil, dated 1924, to illustrate After Everest. There is a photograph in the Westmoreland Gazette of a very spry Noel Odell inspecting this picture when Somervell's paintings of the Himalaya were exhibited at the Abbot Hall Gallery in April 1979(33).

I have traced three watercolours and one pastel of Kangchenjunga including three views from Darjeeling. Kangchenjunga from below Darjeeling, dated 1925 bears the inscription 'EFN from THS.1925'. Edward Norton remained a close friend of Somervell after the Everest expeditions and Somervell may have given this painting to Norton to mark the publication of The Fight for Everest: 1924 or just possibly as a wedding gift. Sunrise over Kangchenjunga from Darjeeling may possibly date from 1928. Another watercolour, Southern Aspect of Kangchenjunga, dated 1928, depicts the valley to the south of the Guicha la from the slopes opposite Pandim and was exhibited at the Alpine Club in 1929. The pastel is Kangchenjunga from Tiger Hill, is dated 1947. All are in private collections. Two more watercolours Domed Peak, Kangchenjunga and Forked Peak, Kangchenjunga as well as Pandim, Sikkim; Kabru, Sikkim were exhibited at the Alpine Club in 1936.

There are at least three oils of Kangchenjunga extant at this time including Kangchenjunga from Darjeeling, (41x84cm) dated 1932, in the possession of the Alpine Club. It is however not a view of the mountain from Darjeeling but possibly from the west. As well as Kangchenjunga, there are myriad peaks to be seen in this painting and Somervell has used matt blocks of paint on a coarse canvas to create a view lit by an oblique, yellowish light (36). A large oil, Kangchenjunga from Darjeeling (78 x 119cm) dates from 1939 and is a striking view of the distant mountains. His large oils of which these are fine examples are bold and confident in their style, something often lacking in his smaller oils. This picture and Kangchenjunga at Dawn, undated, are both in private collections. The latter is a view from Darjeeling and may have been exhibited at the LAS in 1960. An oil was also exhibited and for sale at Abbott Hall Gallery in 1976. Finally there are paintings including Kangchenjunga from Darjeeling; Kangchenjunga from Gangtok and Pandim from Gangtok that were exhibited at the Alpine Club in 1923 and Kangchenjunga from Jongri (AC 1936) and Kangchenjunga (AC 1954) that I have been unable to trace. Some of these might well be paintings that I have referred to above. The watercolours Kangchenjunga from below Darjeeling, Sunrise over Kangchenjunga from Darjeeling and the AC oil Kangchenjunga from Darjeeling referred to above were part of the exhibition Kangchenjunga at the Alpine Club and the University of Wales in May 2005 curated by Simon Pierse (36).

There are at least 6 watercolours of Nanga Parbat, five of which were exhibited at the Alpine Club in 1936. One is probably Nanga Parbat (dated 1933), held in a private collection. The others are Camp near Nanga Parbat; East of Nanga Parbat; Nanga Parbat from Das Khurm; and Nanga Parbat in Cloud. There is possibly another watercolour, Nanga Parbat, private collection, which Somervell describes on the reverse as one of a pair. It shows the top of the Rupal face as seen from above the Rupal nala with swirling cloud below. So it might possibly be Nanga Parbat in Cloud. Abbot Hall Gallery hold a watercolour, Nanga Parbat from Gulmarg, early morning (dated 1951) which shows the massif seen from the south. A watercolour, Nanga Parbat was exhibited at Abbot Hall in 1976. At least two oils, Nanga Parbat from the South (AC 1954), and Nanga Parbat and its satellites (AC 1954) exist although I have been unable to trace them or Nanga Parbat (LAS 1967) or Nanga Parbat, oil, (AHG 1976).

Of other Himalayan paintings not already referred to, there are oils, A Shoulder of Everest (AC 1936); Everest and the Rongbuk Stream (AC 1936); Everest from Base Camp (AC 1936) and Mount Everest from Rongbuk (AC 1936) as well as Nanda Devi (AC 1954). There are watercolours Nanda Devi from North East (AC 1936); A Mountain near Nanda Devi (AC 1936), Pancha Chule, Nepal Border (AC 1936); Everest from Sandakphu (AC 1954); Everest from Phalut (AC 1954). Others, including Nanda Kot, Himalayas (LAS 1956); Himalayas from Gulmarg (LAS 1960); Dhaulagiri (LAS 1964); Jannu, early morning (LAS 1965); I have traced two oils of Nanda Devi. One was probably exhibited in 1954 at the AC, The other seems to have been in Somervell's own collection. Both are now owned privately. The first is similar but smaller than the large oil, Nanda Devi, at Abbot Hall Gallery, Kendal. The other seems to be a view from the south across a range offoothills. There are also paintings in existence of Kabru and Lingtren, dated 1924, and Gaurisankar, Makalu and Lhotse, dated 1928, private collections. The latter is very probably a view from the Singalila ridge. There are possibly a further four paintings of Gaurisankar dating from 1924.

He continued to paint scenes from Tibet and the Himalaya well into his retirement. There is, for instance an oil, Chomolhari, dated 1922 and 1972, private collection a view of the mountain from the north west. One presumes that the original dated from 1922 and continued to provide inspiration half a century later.

Somervell had sketched with William Rothenstein (1872-1945), an official war artist, during the First World War and remarked on his attention to detail in drawing even the humblest of objects (4).In his autobiography, Rothenstein records meeting Somervell in March 1918 but in his biography makes no other comment about him (37). Somervell later wrote that the aspiring mountain artist must first draw his mountain, simplifying detail, 'cubifying' as he put it (21). Another source of influence on Somervell was the Russian philosopher, traveller, artist Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) who in 1946, Somervell described as '...the greatest mountain painter alive...'. Roerich had visited Darjeeling in 1923 and travelled through India before settling in Kullu. Somervell stayed at his house for a few days in 1944 (24). Roerich's tempera paintings demonstrate a similarity in style with those of Somervell. In their suppression of detail and emphasis on the 'main lines' of mountain 'architecture' the two artists shared a common pictorial language perhaps showing the distant influence of Cubism. Roerich's paintings combine a representation of the physical grandeur of the Himalaya with intimations of their spiritual mysteries. Somervell did not develop such themes of mysticism in his paintings, which are mostly on a smaller scale than those of Roerich (36, 38). Other influences on Somervell included his father, other Lake artists such as the Heaton Coopers and also Edward Norton who himself painted and sketched with skill on both the 1922 and 1924 Everest expeditions (39).

Somervell wrote of the colour and atmosphere of Tibet in Assault on Everest: 1922 and his pictures capture the distances, space and remoteness of Tibet and the Himalaya (40). Yet in After Everest, he wrote 'People at home will say my sketches are hard, lacking poetry or mystery but that is just where they are true records of this extraordinary clarity'. He was not the first to paint the Himalayan peaks. An exhibition of paintings of Tibet, Kashmir and India by William Simpson was held at the Pall Mall Gallery in 1869 and Edward Lear had painted three oils and several watercolours of Kangchenjunga following his visit to Darjeeling in 1874 (41). His paintings of southern India must be unique.

Somervell wrote in a note to his 1936 exhibition that a picture must 'communicate something the artist wishes to say' as well as being 'in some measure descriptive of its subject'. Although Somervell sold some paintings, he gave many away and should not in any way be regarded as a commercial artist. This allowed his style to develop much more freely than it might otherwise have done. Noel Odell wrote in his obituary of Somervell that 'No one has so faithfully caught the moods and subtleties of the Tibetan landscape and atmosphere' (42). Somervell deserves more recognition as an artist in his own right. Most would regard his paintings of the great Himalayan peaks and Tibet as unique and they are an important part of the heritage of the Alpine Club as well as the history of mountain art. Sadly, of more than two hundred and thirty scenes of Tibet and the Himalaya that Somervell is known to have painted, I have been able to trace under half. Of the eight paintings included in The Fight for Everest: 1924, I have been able to trace only one, Kampa Dzong, only two pictures of Nanga Parbat and so on. Similarly, I have been able to trace very few of Somervell's paintings of southern India.


  1. Army List 1915.
  2. Somervell T H , The symptoms and treatment of trench foot, Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps 1919; 32 38-47.
  3. Royal Geographical Society Archive, London
  4. Somervell T H., After Everest Hodder and Stoughton, London 1936.
  5. Leigh-Mallory G L, The Assault on Mount Everest: 1922, by CG Bruce Arnold, London.
  6. Ruttledge H, Everest 1933, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1934.
  7. Somervell T H, Climbing North of Kangchenjunga, Fell and Rock Climbing Club Journal 1923: 6; 222-6.
  8. Somervell T H, India Calling, Livingstone Press, London 1947
  9. Somervell T H, Knife and Life in India, Hodder and Stoughton, London 1941
  10. Somervell T H, Spinal percain anaesthesia, Indian Medical Gazette 1933; 68: 270-1.
  11. Somervell T H and Orr I M, Some contributions to causation, pathology and treatment of duodenal ulcer and its complications, British Journal of Surgery 1936; 24: 227-245
  12. Somervell T H, Notes on the composition of alveolar air at extreme heights, Journal of Physiology 1925; 60: 282-5.
  13. London Missionary Society Archives for Travancore, 1923-27. School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. CWM Boxes 13, 27, 28
  14. Salkeld A., The Scapegoat, Alpine Journal 1996; 101: 224-6
  15. Norton E F, The Mount Everest Expedition of 1924, Geographical Journal 1924; 64: 438
  16. Norton E F, The Fight for Mount Everest: 1924, Arnold, London, 1925.
  17. Younghusband F, The Epic of Mount Everest, Arnold, London, 1926.
  18. Somervell T H, The Mount Everest Dispatches, Geographical Journal 1924; 64: 156
  19. Younghusband F, Everest: The Challenge, Nelson, London, 1936, p27
  20. Norton E F, The Fight for Mount Everest: 1924, Arnold, London 1925, p92-94.
  21. Ruttledge H., Wanderings in the Kumaun Himalaya 1925-1926, The Alpine Journal 1927: 39
  22. Somervell T H, Round About Nanda Devi in 1926, Fell and Rock Climbing Club Journal 1927; 7: 342-52.
  23. Somervell T H, A Pilgrimage to Nanga Parbat, Fell and Rock Climbing Club Journal 1934; 10: 89-100
  24. Somervell T H,
    A Holiday in Kulu, Fell and Rock Climbing Club Journal 1946; 14: 195-9.
  25. Somervell T H, Some Minor Expeditions in the Himalaya, The Himalayan Journal 1946: 13: 28-40.
  26. Somervell T H, Climbing in South India, Fell and Rock Climbing Club Journal 1958; 18: 132-7.
  27. Catalogues of the Annual Exhibitions of the Lake Artists Society, Armitt Museum and Library, Ambleside, UK
  28. Alpine Club Gallery. Exhibition of paintings by TH Somervell 1936., National Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
  29. Alpine Club Archive, London
  30. Howard-Bury C K, Mount Everest-The Reconnaissance, 1921, Arnold, London 1922
  31. Ward M P, Everest, A Thousand Years of Exploration
    The Ernst Press, Glasgow 2003, p104.
  32. Tilman H W, Mount Everest 1938, Cambridge University Press 1948
  33. 'Height of Achievement', Westmoreland Gazette, 27 April 1979
  34. Bauer P, Himalayan Quest, Nicholson and Watson, London. 1938
  35. Evans C, Kangchenjunga, The Untrodden Peak, Hodder and Stoughton, 1956
  36. Pierse S, Kangchenjunga: Imaging a Himalayan Mountain, University of Wales, 2005
  37. Rothenstein W, Men and Memories, Faber and Faber, London 1931, p336, 338
  38. Decter J, Nicholas Roerich: The Life and Art of a Russian Master, Thames and Hudson, London. 1989
  39. Ward M P, The Everest Sketches of Lt Col EF Norton, The Alpine Journal 1993; 98: 82
  40. Somervell T H, Colour in Tibet, In The Assault on Mount Everest: 1922 by CG Bruce, Arrnold, London 1923. p309-312
  41. Noakes V., Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer:, Collins , London 1968,
  42. Odell N E, The Alpine Journal 1976; 81: 272-4.

In the preparation of this article, I have drawn extensively on archive material from the Alpine Club, London and the Royal Geographical Society, London.

This article is adapted, with permission, from one that was published in the Alpine Journal in 2005 and includes some further reflections on Somervell as an artist. The author would be pleased to have any information on paintings by Somervell that may be in the possession of readers of this article. djseddon@btinternet.com


Life of T. H. Somervell as a climber and artist.


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