The British love of the Alps dates back to the early nineteenth century, to Turner, Byron, Shelley and Ruskin. For climbers the Alpine Club was founded in 1857 and Ball’s celebrated Alpine Guides detailing favourite routes first appeared in 1866. Thereafter the popularity of the Bernese Oberland continued to grow, and with railways came hotels and a small permanent English community at the village of Wengen, supporting its own Anglican church. Here the Laverys holidayed at the beginning of December 1912. Ball’s 1907 guide (The Central Alps, Longmans and Green, p.91) describes the little resort as ‘an admirable centre for short walks and excursions’, neglecting to mention its hotels and amenities for ice skating and curling, while for Baedeker, (Switzerland, 1907, Leipzig, pp.200-1) its splendid views of the Jungfrau with ‘her dazzling shroud of eternal snow’ deceived the tourist’s gaze. From Wengen ‘the proportions of the mountain are so gigantic that the eye attempts in vain to estimate them and its distance [actually 2½ miles] seems annihilated’.
Although this was a winter holiday, the painter was intensely active. During the year, he had received a commission to paint the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace and dates for the commencement of the work were fixed in the King’s diary for February 1913, when the painter would normally be staying at his winter studio overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar. So, on the recommendation of Lady Gwendoline Churchill, Lavery, his wife, Hazel and stepdaughter, Alice, booked the Regina Hotel Blümlisalp at Wengen for a two month stay from the beginning of December 1912 (fig. 1). In January he reported waking up each morning to fresh snow, but was undeterred. Skiers, skaters and curlers were painted. While her fearless companion, Miss Mary Mond, took to the ice, Alice was depicted dragging her sledge to nearby slopes and in splendid style, she and her mother posed for Japanese Switzerland (fig.2).
The highlight of the holiday was however, a journey up to Jungfraujoch station, belatedly opened in August 1912 and the terminus of the Jungfrau railway. Back in December 1894, Adolph Guyer-Zeller, a Zurich financier, had submitted ambitious plans to take a little rack-and-pinion train to the top of the mountain. This enormous engineering feat, costing 12 million francs and 27 lives, took almost eighteen years to complete, and opened just in time for the forthcoming winter season. Lavery was thus able to make his ascent with a full painting kit, stopping at the Eismeer viewing station en route. This became a temporary studio and the setting for a swift sketch of the visiting party.
In all, three views of the Jungfrau and one of the Monch (Ulster Museum, Belfast) are known. One depicts the steep flanks of the mountain, probably painted from Eismeer station, while another shows a group of Alpinists setting off (both Private Collections). In the present example, these same climbers, now insect shapes against the snow, are continuing their trek to the summit. As an ensemble, this simple series of lyrical curves, leading the eye to the pinnacle, is the most iconic of the three and this undoubtedly led the painter to select it from all his recent Alpine scenes, for inclusion in the forthcoming Royal Academy exhibition.
It appeared of course, in competition with the Royal Family group portrait (National Portrait Gallery) – the work that claimed more attention than any other in the exhibition. It was nevertheless by no means ignored. The Scotsman for instance considered it a work ‘in his best style’, and returned to it for its ‘charm’, while for The Manchester Courier it was ‘austere and lovely’. Japanese Switzerland, hanging in the same exhibition, gave the clue to its oriental sense of composure. The motif is perfectly placed. This snow-covered landscape has brought out Lavery’s innate sense of design and a certain nonchalance that does indeed ‘charm’ the eye.
We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for kindly preparing this catalogue entry.
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