Friday 25 June 2010

The Abraham Brothers Photographing the past

Harry Griffin climbing on Dow Crag in the English Lake District.
In an age when most successful outdoor writers find themselves jetting off to report from some exotic location; Harry Griffin was of a bygone era when most outdoor writers and activists were firmly based in a particular area. In this case, AHG was very much a man of the Lakes in the same way as his contemporary Showell Styles found most of his adventures and material in North Wales. Despite both men venturing abroad on occasion, it was in their back yards that they crafted their most important works..Born in Barrow in Furness, Harry began his writing career as a cub reporter with the Barrow Guardian before moving to the Lancashire Evening Post. It was at the Post where he began to get his teeth into outdoor writing. Penning a column. 'Leaves from a Lakeland Diary' which ran for nearly thirty years. Putting even this achievement in the shade,his Guardian 'Country Diary' column ran for over fifty years, something of a journalistic world record for consistent output!
To compliment his journalism,Harry began writing books about his beloved Lake District home.

In 1961 came Inside The Real Lakeland. Two years later, In Mountain Lakeland, then Pageant Of Lakeland (1966), The Roof Of England (1968), Still the Real Lakeland (1970), Long Days In The Hills (1974), A Lakeland Notebook (1975), A Year In The Fells (1976), Freeman Of The Hills (1978), Discovering Lakeland (A Motorist's Guide) and Adventuring In Lakeland (1980), A Lakeland Mountain Diary (1990) and The Coniston Tigers (1999). 

As an outdoor activist AHG found material in every corner of his home turf. Delighting in exploring every facet of the Cumbrian uplands and describing in rich detail everything from rescuing a crag fast sheep to skiing across the frozen cols under a full winter's moon.Added to his Hillwalking and skiing experiences was a devotion to rock climbing. Amongst his charming Lake District routes are some little gems such as Sadgill Wall and The Tiger's Traverse on Dow Crag. It was in the Dow Crag area that he found himself most actively engaged. Exploits detailed in his beautiful climbing autobiography The Coniston Tigers.
Amazingly, Harry was still climbing into his 80's and completed his last route-a V Diff far above Buttermere when he was 85. He died in 2004 aged 93.

The Abraham clan.Father G P Abraham at the back with Ashley, John and George L to R

THE ABRAHAM BROTHERS of Keswick, born a hundred or more years ago, are due for a reappraisal. It has long been accepted that they were the first popularisers of mountaineering and the first to take photographs of rock climbers in action but they were also climbing pioneers of vision and distinction. Keswick Brothers on Scafell, New West on Pillar, the, Crowberry Ridge in Glencoe, Cioch Direct in Skye, and the Monolith Crack in Wales indicate the, scope. of their discoveries, and this is only a small selection. Seventy years ago the brothers were, looking at the East Buttress of Clogwyn du'r Arddu, and George, the elder of the two, once told me he believed there was an aiguille above Chamonix that used to bear their name, although I've never been able to identify it. Clearly, they were adventurous men who lived for mountains—and, to a considerable extent, made their living out of them. Early this century this was held by some to be not quite proper. Today, with scores, or even hundreds of people doing much the same thing, it would be applauded.

Ashley, the younger brother who died in 1951 at the age of 75, I knew only slightly; George, who died in 1965 in his 94th year, I knew fairly well. Our last meeting in his home that looked out on to one of the. finest views in England, took place only a few months before his death. For a couple of hours the old man, perhaps the oldest living mountaineer but still quite sprightly and clear-minded, looked back over his memories of sixty, seventy and nearly eighty years before and slowly the old photographs came to life.

For 30 years, from 1890 to 1920, the Keswick brothers pioneered new climbs in Lakeland, Scotland and Wales and with their photographs and writings, did more than anybody else to popularise the sport. They were boy­hood heroes of mine in the late 1920s and their photo­graphs outside their Keswick studio my early inspira­tion, as they must have been for many others. George was not only the very last of the deerstalker and Norfolk jacket pioneers, but the man who took the first real climbing pictures while his "The Complete Mountain­eer" and "British Mountain Climbs" were among the first climbing books. I regard it as a great privilege to have known this genial link with the earliest days of our sport. He climbed with nearly all the legendary figures—W. P. Haskett Smith, Owen Glynne Jones, Geoffrey Hastings, W. C. Slingsby, J. W. Robinson and many more—outlasted them all and was still climbing in his seventies. Even in his eighties he was flying to Switzerland to visit old friends and do modest walks, but his last memory of the Alps was of an ascent by mountain railway at the age of 87.

The two brothers were the eldest of the four sons of George Perry Abraham, the founder of the family firm, who took early photographs of Lakeland scenery and snapshots of the tourists walking down to the, lake. The third brother, Sidney, became a bank manager in Keswick and died before the last war while the youngest son, John, who at one time was acting Governor of Tanganyika, died in 1939. George was born in Keswick in 1872 and Ashley four years later. The early ambition of the elder brother was to paint Lakeland scenery rather than photograph it—he studied at art school in Manchester and there was a splendid oil painting of Skiddaw done when he was only 14 in his study—but both George and Ashley later went into the family business.

Their first day's "real" climbing—after scrambling at Castle Head near Keswick—took place about 90 years ago and George told me all about it as we sat in his study one November day in 1964. They took their mother's clothes line and went off to climb Pillar Rock. "There were some Alpine Club men on the Rock that day," George recalled, "but instead of frightening us away or laughing at us they offered to lend us a proper rope and gave us all the help they could. I remember thinking at the time 'What wonderful men!' and I made up my mind to become a climber."
Abraham Bros shot of their great friend O G Jones on Kern Knotts Crack. Fell and Rock Club©

The first new climb discovered in Lakeland by the Keswick Brothers, as they came to be called, was Sandbed Ghyll  in St John's in the Vale which they climbed in 1890 when George was 18 and Ashley only 14. George remembered that day 74 years earlier, very well—how they had had a drink from a waterfall about half-way up and at the top of the pitch, had found a dead sheep lying in the water. He couldn't remember what they had called the climb, except that it wasn't Sandbed Ghyll.

 "People often altered the names of climbs and even put our own names on some of them including­ those two buttresses on Dow Crag—but we never did that," he told me. He clearly remembered, too, their first ascent of Walla Crag Gully in Borrowdale in 1892 and once asked me nearly 60 years later, whether the withered root of an old holly tree they had used as a foothold, was still there. When I told him that it was, although now worn thin by hundreds of climbers' boots and creaking ominously, he was delighted.

George was more often the leader and the instigator of new climbs. He had a wonderful eye for a route and spent some time in studying the problems before­hand. He was a very neat climber on rock—not nearly so agile on snow and ice—and, although daring and inventive in rope tactics and the like, was a most cautious climber. His daughter, Mrs Enid J. Wilson of Keswick, tells me he never fell from a climb although he once broke a collar bone in a motor car accident in 1901—the brothers were also pioneer motorists in Lakeland. Ashley on the other hand, was very strong and, as often as not, was the trustworthy second, always ready to give a shoulder or other help. The brothers were of about equal height but Ashley was much heavier, weighing about 15 stones. George, was slim and wiry all his days. Their personalities were complementary. George, rather quiet and unassuming, Ashley, a great talker, full of charm and good humour. They shared the photography but George did most of the writing while Ashley went on his lecture tours. Ashley was the first president of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club—in 1907 —and George an early honorary member, held office in many clubs, but was chiefly proud of his hon. member­ship of the Alpine Club, conferred in 1954. 

He was also the founder president of the little Keswick Mountain­eering Club and walked up to the club hut high above Honister, for the opening ceremony, when he was over 80. George was proud, too, of a signed photograph of the late Prince Consort of the Netherlands. Many years ago he was asked to take the Prince for a walk over Scafell Pike—he and his wife, the former Queen Wilhelmina, were holiday-making in the Lake District at the time. They went up from Seathwaite and came down to Langdale and when they had come down Rossett Ghyll they found the Queen sitting sketching, George remembered, "in a tatty old woollen dress," not far from the sheepfold in Mickleden.

The brothers' companion on many first ascents was Owen Glynne Jones and one of the most important of these climbs was Walker's Gully on Pillar Rock—"the last big, unclimbed gully in Lakeland." Jones, George Abraham and A. E. Field were the party on that occasion and they walked to Pillar on a January morning through a storm of rain and sleet. The climb was iced with a waterfall splashing down between the icicles and the party was wet through and frozen before it reached the limit of previous exploration. Jones led with George as his second and to climb the crux, took off his boots and his Norfolk jacket and used a rope loop to help him up the worst corner. Perhaps this ended the gully era in Lakeland and opened the way for a start on the great face climbs.

Moss Ghyll: Fell and Rock Club©
The combination of Jones and George Abraham, in particular, was one of the most formidable in British mountaineering at that time and, between them they privately laid plans for an attempt on Kangchenjunga. But, before these could be finalised, Jones fell to his death on the Dent Blanche and the development of British climbing was probably held back for years as a result. George once told me that Jones was the finest climber he had ever known—extremely strong in the arms but also immensely neat in his footwork.

The Abrahams' favourite climb remained the 'New West on Pillar, discovered by George and Ashley in 1901, and the last climb the two brothers did together —in 1936, when Ashley was 60 and George 64. In his 70th year George took his second wife, up the Crowberry Ridge on Buachaille Etive Mor—one of his most famous first ascents. "When we were about half-way up," she told me in the 1960s, "George said he knew of a good place where we could have our sandwiches but it turned out to be a ledge about nine inches wide overlooking a vertical drop." This was one of George's last climbs in Britain.

Owen Glynne Jones had been introduced to the Abraham brothers at Wasdale Head during Christmas, 1895 and the following Easter called on them at Kes­wick after a night journey from London. He had in mind a book of Lakeland climbs and thought the brothers might be able to provide the pictures while the Abrahams with their eye to the main chance, quickly realised the potential of the idea. Jones "Rock Climb­ing in the English Lake District," illustrated by the Abraham brothers, was published in 1897 had a big success and later became a minor classic. The brothers were the first to take heavy plate cameras on to the crags and photograph rock climbers in action but there was some criticism from the old school who did not like the publicity. It was even alleged that some of the pictures had been sensationalised by tilting.

On that Easter meeting in 1896 the Abrahams and Jones went up Eagle's Nest Ridge on Great Gable by the West Chimney, came down the Arrowhead Ridge, ascended the Needle Ridge and finished down Needle Gully—a good day 80 years ago, only ten years after Haskett Smith's first ascent of Napes Needle. A few days later the three made the first ascent of what is now known as Jones Route from Deep Gill on Scafell ­using combined tactics at one awkward point. The Abrahams often provided Jones with extra footholds on their shoulders or heads and were also among the first to make rope belays although their practice of paying the rope across rock projections would not find favour today. George has told me that the Lake­land crags looked quite different in those days. "There wasn't a scratch or a mark on them," he said "and you could climb almost anywhere and be on rock where nobody had ever been before. But there was a lot more grass and lichen about and we had to do a lot of gardening to find the holds."

The Abrahams first visited Wales at Easter, 1897, making the first direct ascent of the Slanting Gully on Lliwedd, where George made early use of a thread belay. Two years later with Jones, they were there again, making the second ascent of the Devil's Kitchen and also of the Devil's Staircase. They also discovered the Milestone Buttress and a few years later, made the first ascents of the Hawk's Nest Buttress on Glyder Fach and the Monolith Crack. Their climbs gave them the material for their new book, "Rock Climbing in North Wales," and two years later George wrote "The Com­plete Mountaineer," following it with "British Mountain Climbs" and "Mountain Adventures at Home and Abroad." Ashley's contribution was "Rock Climbing in Skye," published in 1908. The brothers had made their first visit to Skye in 1895, following it by several others and putting up several first ascents, including the Cioch Direct, climbed by Ashley and H. Harland in 1907. 

At the beginning of the century the brothers, with E. A. Baker and J. W. Puttrell, had made the first ascent of the Crowberry Ridge in Glencoe which George had considered equal to the North Climb on Pillar and Eagle's 'Nest Ridge on Gable combined. George had spent his honeymoon in Glencoe round about this time and Winifred's Pinnacle on Aonoch Dubh was named after his first wife who was a cousin of Owen Glynne Jones.

In the Lake District the Abrahams' first ascents in­cluded Keswick Brothers on Scafell, a bold lead for 1897 and their fine route on B Buttress, Dow Crag, which they climbed in 1903. Between them they were involved in at least 50 first ascents in this country, George being the leader on about 30 occasions. They also climbed a great deal in the Alps, first visiting Zermatt in 1897 and climbing mostly with guides, as was the, fashion in those days. Being more interested in rock than in snow and ice they were particularly active, among the Chamonix Aiguilles and in the Dolomites. The brothers were also 'interested in several other sporting pursuits and rather naturally, their pioneer motoring included some adventurous hill climbing by car.

Their photographs fall into three categories—exciting pictures of climbers balanced on tiny holds above tremendous drops or jammed in dark gullies, studies, of the giants of the Alps, or restful pictures of the Lakeland fells taken at all seasons of the year. Their most suc­cessful picture from a commercial point of view—copies have gone all over the world—was a photograph of Crummock Water, with a rowing boat in the fore­ground, taken on a quiet November day 70 years ago.

To take their early pictures on the crags the brothers had to handle heavy equipment up the rocks and some­times did their own developing and printing in the open in shaded tents close to running water. Ashley often carried the equipment on the crags, although in the Alps they used porters for the work. The never used filters or carried an exposure meter, but the light always had to be exactly right and coming from the correct angle. Sometimes the climbers tended to merge into the background and, to correct this, some later photographers dressed their climbers in white sweaters. Ashley became the lion of the lecture halls, travelling the country with his lantern slides.

The brothers lived in adjoining houses at Chestnut Hill, Keswick—Ashley at "The Screen" and George at "Idwal." Throughout their life they were the closest friends—both genial, kindly men, although contrasting, complementary characters. They lived to survive early criticism that they made money out of their climbing and have become accepted throughout the climbing world as distinguished pioneers and men of high pro­fessional integrity. They remained perhaps a little old-fashioned in their attitude to the sport and in their writings but to the end were devoted to the hills. 

Both were always ready with help or encouragement for the young mountaineer and quietly modest about their contribution to the sport. They will always be remem­bered for Keswick Brothers climb on Scafell, the two climbs on Dow Crag that bear their name, many fine routes in Lakeland, Wales and Scotland, their writings and, most of all, their photography. Climbing owes a great debt to these adventurous Cumbrian brothers who by their artistry, energy and courage, first lifted up so many people's eyes to the hills.

The original Abraham Brothers studio in the Keswick town centre. Now the George Fisher Outdoor shop.

AH Griffin©