When men and mountains meet

Stephen Goodwin assesses an exhibition in the Lake District of painters who have drawn inspiration from the heights
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A conundrum: John Ruskin was openly contemptuous of mountaineers, yet in 1869 he was admitted to membership of the serious peak-bagger's most august institution, the Alpine Club. Normally aspirants have to satisfy the Club that they have climbed a respectable clutch of mountains above the 4,000 metre mark, the alpine giants, in other words. But Ruskin believed that the best view of hills was from the bottom and expressed his disgust at those who used mountains as "soaped poles in a bear-garden".

In summary, the great writer loved the Alps but was a wimp. This cosseted son of a wealthy wine merchant scrambled up only one mountain, the 10,160ft Buet. As Ronald Clark gently put it in The Victorian Mountaineers, "psychologically he stood always on the edge of the mountains".

Yet his membership of the AC was not undeserved. The best justification for it has just gone on display at the Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal, Cumbria, as part of an exhibition entitled "Sublime Inspiration, the Art of Mountains from Turner to Hillary". The choice of these two famous names as book- ends seems to have more to do with crowd-pulling than authenticity, since Turner painted mountains only incidentally and Hillary was neither a painter nor a serious photographer. He was, however, first (with Tensing) to the top of Everest and the punters have heard of that.

The Ruskin water-colours alone make a visit to Abbot Hall worthwhile this summer - and not just as a wet-weather alternative to climbing the Lake District fells around the artist's Brantwood home, by Coniston. The "writer and art critic" label becomes inadequate when confronted with such a large body of his paintings, in many of which the freshness of the blues belies their age and the damp of the swirling mists is palpable.

It is Ruskin's feel for the powerful essence of mountains, particularly evident in his Chamonix paintings, where wild serrations of shadowy rock rise blue-grey above glaciers, that makes his bond with the climber. No picturesque sentimentality here, but a place of awe, though not, as mountains were regarded up to the 18th century, the haunt of dragons and demons. His anatomically observed Chamouni, Rocks and Vegetation reveals his study of geology and in its close focus could be a modern work.

"As a painter of mountains, Ruskin was never surpassed," says Edward Hall, the gallery director. Well, in this exhibition maybe not. But it is rather parochial in its scope. Had Mr Hall cast around the galleries of the Alpine nations he could have tapped into a rich tradition of mountain painting. For example, for the natural role of man in the mountains as peasant farmer, not to mention the luminescent skies of the Upper Engadine, he could have turned to the extraordinary 19th-century symbolist Giovanni Segantini.

But the most glaring omission from the walls of Abbot Hall is anything by the watercolourist William Heaton Cooper. He was the quintessential painter of the Lake District, his landscapes as familiar to tea-room tourists as the fells themselves.

Heaton Cooper is every bit the equal of Ruskin as a link between painting and climbing - a less refined one, perhaps, but carrying more clout with the rude practitioner. He not only tasted the vertical delights of his native crags but illustrated the climbing guide-books which introduced them to the post-war masses. Most climbers now over 40 will have used Heaton Cooper's topographical drawings in the Fell and Rock Climbing Club Guides to explore the Lakeland crags, and in their reflective moments at the pub admired the watercolours of Pillar, Great Gable, or the Langdale Pikes which made the slim volumes minor works of art.

The inclusion in the exhibition of a work by Julian Cooper, the next of the dynasty, only draws attention to the omission. A large painting of the Dent Blanche, above Zermatt, with small figures on a cafe balcony, it punctures the Romantic notions of many of the earlier works. The mountain is a brooding place apart, though to the balcony crowd it is merely a backdrop to their fun. If Ruskin thought the alpenstock brigade an irreverent, selfish bunch, imagine the vitriol he would have heaped on skiers and their paraphernalia of lifts and mountain-top cafes?

Many of the paintings in the exhibition are from the extensive collection of the Alpine Club. So, too, is a collection of breathtaking photographs from the 1870s, the so-called Golden Age of alpine mountaineering, when ladies climbed in hats and ankle-length dresses.

From this same era, there is also the tent used by Edward Whymper during the fateful first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 when four of his companions fell to their deaths. Weighing 23lbs, it was carried by "little Luc Meynet, the hunch-back of Breuil", recalled Whymper. Tents, if not master-servant relationships, have changed in mountaineering since then. But the weather hasn't. And if it is pouring in the Lake District this summer (or even if it isn't) the Abbot Hall Gallery makes an enthralling retreatn

`Sublime Inspiration, the Art of Mountains from Turner to Hillary', is at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, Cumbria (01539 722464) until 14 Sept, open daily 10.30am to 5pm.

Stephen Goodwin is The Independent's Heritage Correspondent and a member of the Alpine Club