George Mallory- the Artist

“Not only those who perform are artists, but also those who are moved by the performance. Artists, in this sense, are not distinguished by the power of expressing emotion, but the power of feeling that emotional experience out of which Art is made. We recognize this when we speak of individuals as artistic, though they have no pretension to create Art. Arrogant mountaineers are all artistic, independently of any other consideration, because they cultivate emotional experience for its own sake; and so for the same reason are sportsmen.” George Leigh Mallory from The Mountaineer as an Artist


George was one who both performed and was moved by performance.

Of his character, his friend David Pye wrote that “the counterpoint to his eagerness, enthusiasm, and optimism” was “a tendency to depression, impatience, and disgust at any failure.” George lived with an intense sensitivity and a heightened awareness of the world around him.

Arthur Benson, one of George’s mentors at Cambridge, said that George displayed “a love of poetry and beauty.” Benson told of his pupil’s “exclamations of pleasure which break from him spontaneously at the beauties of the place, and his vehement laughter and rippling smiles if he is amused.” Benson went on to say that he “never saw anyone show such ecstatic delight as George in the presence of the mountains.” He was perpetually enthralled.

George grew up, but never lost his thrill for new experiences. At age 34 in his letters to Ruth from the first Everest expedition he detailed everything from the people he encountered to the landscape that he learned to love despite its ruggedness. He wrote that in the evening “the harshness become subdued, there is a blending of lines and folds until the last light so that one comes to bless the absolute bareness, feeling that here is a pure beauty of form, a kind of ultimate harmony.”

Mallory not only developed his artistry climbing in France, but in living there several months between 1909 and 1910. He spent time both in the south of France and in Paris while recovering from a severe ankle injury (see George filled his days working on his French, reading, attending lectures, visiting theatre and music halls, swimming, and going for extended strolls in a multitude of gardens and avenues. The people he met were drawn in by his charm and superb command of French and he made many a spontaneous friendship.

At the end of April 1910 George returned to Cambridge from Paris. He was 24 and it was time for him to decide how he was going to make a living. He said to his father that he wanted to be a writer, but his father replied that it was a far too erratic and unreliable a profession.

Eventually George became a teacher at a public English school to teach high school level history, math, Latin, and French.

Some students thought he was inspirational, while others took advantage of his non-authoritarian methods to wreak havoc in his classroom. He told his pupils to read widely and spoke to them of politics and literature. To their great delight, he took them on field trips to scenic and architectural landmarks. The poet Robert Graves said George was the “best teacher and first real friend he ever had.”

Despite the time George devoted to teaching he was eventually able to publish one book. It was a biography of the author James Boswell, and even George’s father could not deny that “it was a great success!”

Personally I think George’s talent as a writer shines through in all of his work- whether anectodal, scientific, or personal. One great example is this sonnet that he wrote for his dearest Ruth:

“I remember a passionate lark, from fields at home

Launched in the fern-spread cradle of summer air,

That filled, as no bird but the proud lark dare

With life of liquid sound the whole heaven’s dome.

But this lone mystic of Italian hills,

With wings beating at the doors of Paradise,

Not only charms my wakeful ear, but fills

With fire of the one true vision, my smouldering eyes.

Now I am lost in listening, and the streams

Of pure music suspended at a great height

Drop even to me, then borne through quivering light

Float o’er unmeasured space, until it seems

That the same lark winging the universal blue

Wakes the same trembling ecstasy in you.”

George was moved by art and George created art, but George himself was also art. Duncan Grant, a British post-impressionist, photographed and painted several portraits of George. Grant belonged to the Bloomsbury group -a union of British artists, writers, and philosophers- from which George gained several intellectual friendships.

George, painted by Duncan Grant
George, photographed by Duncan Grant

George was an artist in every facet of his life, but undoubtedly the facet in which he displayed the most artistry was in his climbing and relation to mountains. He exhibited grace in his movements and his descriptions. Harry Tyndale, who climbed with George, explained that “in watching George at work one was conscious not so much of physical strength as of suppleness and balance; so rhythmical and harmonious was his progress in any steep place… that his movements appeared almost serpentine in their smoothness.”

And with paper and pen “he had come to feel that much mountaineering writing was arid and impersonal, and that while most climbers were able to relate what they did, few could describe how they felt.”

In regard to his writing, I am moved by his incredible ability to capture a scene and its emotion in poignant detail. It’s hard to write about George as an artist, without wanting to share everything I have read of him. So, below I share several excerpts of his exquisite word art that have not previously appeared in my posts. Enjoy!

“We do not think that our aesthetic experiences of sunrises and sunsets and clouds and thunder are supremely important facts in mountaineering, but rather that they cannot thus be separated and cataloged and described individually as experiences at all. They are not incidental in mountaineering but a vital and inseparable part of it; they are not ornamental but structural; they are not various items causing emotion but parts of an emotional whole; they are the crystal pools perhaps, but they owe their life to a continuous stream.

It is this unity that makes so many attempts to describe aesthetic detail seem futile. Somehow they miss the point and fail to touch us. It is because they are only fragments. If we take one moment and present its emotional quality apart form the whole, it has lost the very essence that gave it a value. If we write about an expedition from the emotional point of view in any part of it, we ought so to write about the whole adventure from beginning to end.” – George Mallory, from The Mountaineer as an Artist

“Perhaps men only pretend to be bored because they think it unmanly to be childishly amused; secretely perhaps they indulge visions of delight. In any case I’ll be nothing but grateful for my visions, grateful for the supreme good fortune of Alpine memories. I can look long at my mountains without being bored. And yet it is not wholly satisfying merely to look at them. However sharply I distinguish those mountain-scenes a certain vagueness remains to be dispersed. And why not clear it up- see one vision clearly in its true perspective of deeper suggestion? I will record for my own intense light, one splendid day, all the facts and thoughts, as I remember them now, completely and exactly. Facts and thoughts! A mere jumble at first sight as I look back. Do the facts exist for me independently? If I view them detachedly, as historically happening to historical people, the Graham, the Harry and the me of five years ago, they seem to lose their significance, to have no interest for me, no meaning. I can bring myself with an effort to think about them like that, but it is not so that I remember them. They passed into my mind, not as things that I witnessed, but as thoughts that came to me. What more after all are the events of life than moments in the stream of thought, which is experience? It is the experience, in this sense, of an Alpine expedition that I want to recall. But can I recall it? As the day even now begins to take more definite shape before me, I find not only reasoned thoughts such as may easily be expressed in words, but thought less tangible, less precise, thought that would rather be called feeling. A stream of feeling I seem to recall. But am I feeling now what I felt then? I can’t be sure of that. Perhaps, through the strange contrast between those scenes and this world about me, my present emotion is further from the cold light of reason; I am troubled by the marvelous reappearance of so much lost beauty, so many loved shapes. And then, being human, I am subject to change; each day the sum of experience adds up to a different total. Decidedly the total of today is not that of five years ago; probably an emotion can never be exactly repeated or reproduced; the same chords may be struck, the music has altered tones. And yet there is ultimate truth in experience recalled- if not quite recaptured. It is only from what was originally thought and felt that any present emotion exists. The past may live again- with a difference; and what lives is true. And if I am condemned, in spite of all my remembrance, to see that day through the more travelled eyes of now, it can only live for me again through those other eyes- the eyes of one who stood in the sun and looked upwards with fear and hope, and who sat in the shade of rocks with half a world beneath his feet; I must stand where he stood in the sun, sit where he sat in the shade; inhabit the places where he most intently thought and felt and there look through his eyes.”-George Mallory, None but Ourselves

“The dignitiy and peace of mountains from height to depth, from sunlight to shadow! The still glory of such a host, unmasked and beautiful? All the patience and wisdom of the ages seemed to be graven here, all the courage and endurance and all the travail. These forms had listened to the jar of terrible discords and the music of gentle voices, had seen the hard strokes of cruelty and the forgiving gesture of pity. They could be greatly troubled yet splendidly serene, they could threaten, but also smile. These faces hid the depths of doubt and faith, of hate and love. They knew the energy of doing and the calm of repose; the stormy tossing of endeavor and the even keel of achievement; they knew the shades of care and the frank way of kindly laughter; anxiety and the quiet reaches of thought; slow pain and swift delight. They knew, changing with snow and wind and sun, the flicker of quick response to a thousand moods, and, with all this complex heart, had the strength of great resolves unchanging; a constant spirit immutably clean and true and friendly. Here tortured pride, perhaps, would find the infinite wrath and infinite despair; but here too, among the mountains would be found infinite hope and steps for children’s feet…”- George Mallory, None but Ourselves

“A breeze cool and bracing seemed to gather force as they plodded up the long slopes, more gentle now as they approached the final goal. He felt the wind about him with its old strange music. His thoughts became less conscious, less continuous. Rather than thinking or feeling he was simply listening- listening for distant voices scarcely articulate… The solemn dome resting on those marvelous buttresses, fine and firm above all its chasms of ice, its towers and crags; a place where desires point and aspirations end; very very high and lovely, long-suffering and wise… Experience , slowly and wonderfully filtered; at the last a purged remainder… And what is that? What more than the infinite knowledge that it is all worthwhile- all one strives for? How to get the best of it all? One must conquer, achieve, get to the top; one must know the end to be convinced that one can win the end- to know there’s no dream that mustn’t be dared… Is this the summit, crowning the day? How cool and quiet! We’re not exultant; but delighted, joyful; soberly astonished… Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves. Have we gained success? That word means nothing here. Have we won a kingdom? No… and yes. We have achieved an ultimate satisfaction… fulfilled a destiny… To struggle and to understand never this last without the other; such is the law… We’ve only been obeying an old law then? Ah, but it’s the law… and we understand a little more. So ancient, wise and terrible- and yet kind we see them; with steps for children’s feet.”- George Mallory, None but Ourselves

“Mountain shapes are often fantastic seen through a mist; these were like the wildest creation of a dream. A preposterous triangular lump rose out the depths; its edge came leaping up at an angle of about 70 degrees and ended nowhere. To the left a black serrated crest was hanging in the sky incredibly. Gradually, very gradually, we saw the great mountain sides and glaciers and arêtes, now one fragment and now another through the floating rifts, until far higher in the sky than imagination had dared to suggest the white summit of Everest appeared. And in this series of partial glimpses we had seen a whole; we were able to piece together the fragments, to interpret the dream.” –George Mallory, The Northern Approach

“Even before the first glimmer of dawn, the white mountains were somehow touched to life by a faint blue light- a light that changed, as the day grew, to a rich yellow on Everest and then a bright grey-blue before it blazed all golden when the sun hit it, while Makalu, even more beautiful, gave us the redder shades, the flush of pink and purple shadows.” – George Mallory, upon seeing Everest’s east face one August morning

“When all is said about Chomolungma, the Goddess Mother of the World, and about Chomo Uri, the Goddess of the Turquoise Mountain, I come back to the valley, the valley bed itself, the broad pastures, where our tents lay, where cattle grazed and where butter was made, the little stream we followed up to the valley head, wandering along its well-turfed banks under the high moraine, the few rare plants, saxifrages, gentians and primulas, so well watered there, and a soft, familiar blueness in the air which even here may charm us. Though I bow to the goddesses I cannot forget at their feet a gentler spirit than theirs, a little shy perhaps, but constant in the changing winds and variable moods of mountains and always friendly.”- George Mallory, from The Eastern Approach

“We went out into the keen air; it was a night of early moons. Mounting a little rise of stones and faintly crunching under our feet the granular atoms of fresh fallen snow we were already aware of some unusual loveliness in the moment and the scenes. We were not kept waiting for the supreme effects; the curtain was withdrawn. Rising from the bright mists Mount Everest above us was imminent, vast, incalculable- no fleeting apparition of elusive dream-form: nothing could have been more set and permanent, steadfast like Keats’s star, ‘in lone splendor hung aloft the night’, a watcher of all the nights, diffusing, it seemed universally, an exalted radiance.”- George Mallory, from The Eastern Approach


Part 1:

Part 2:


The Wildest Dream by Peter and Leni Gilman and Climbing Everest by George Leigh Mallory

Published by Johanne Boulat

Johanne Boulat was born in French-speaking Switzerland, where she lives again now, but she grew up under the resplendent California sun. For 21 years she basked in the spirit of the Wilderness, which she discovered on hiking as well as literary paths. She received her Bachelor of Science in Animal Biology from the University of California, Davis in 2012 and since then has worked as a scientific field aid, a translator, a sales specialist, and a running coach. In 2018, she completed her master’s degree in English Literature at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. She now teaches English and Science at a local elementary school and dedicates her free time to the three “R”s: Running, Reading, and Writing.

4 thoughts on “George Mallory- the Artist

  1. I would love to hear more of this remarkable man. I’ve read a few books about him and wish there were more detailed accounts of his personal life. I’m really bothered by the idea he was going to leave his wife. By all accounts of what I’ve read, he seemed very devoted to her and what a bubble buster that would be for me.

    1. Hi,
      Thank you for your comment. I agree he is a remarkable man!
      But, I have one question for you- where did you get the notion he was going to leave his wife? In my extensive reading about Mallory, I was aware that he kept correspondence with other women, and that a letter from one of these women was found on him (along with other papers/letters), but none of what I have read suggests he was going to leave Ruth.

      1. on a webpage about the book Paths of glory I think. It said, ” although their marriage was in trouble I doubt he was going to leave his wife”. That comment was made by Peter Gillman who wrote The Wildest Dream. Why would someone even suggest that. Actually, by reading his letters to Ruth from the 1924 climb it sounded like any married couple going through the ups and downs of marriage so why even suggest there is trouble? Author embellishment? G.M. letters to Ruth sounded very much to me that he had a lovely marriage and I’m sticking with that but it does bother me that someone has put that doubt in my mind suggesting otherwise. thanks for listening

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