Ice dreams

9th January 1998 at 00:00
(Photograph) - To 20th century eyes this photograph, taken on the Chamonix glacier in the Alps in 1857, is striking because of the sheer unsuitability of the travellers' dress as much as for their surroundings. But for all their pomp under the circumstances, these people -- whose identities remain a mystery -- were pioneers. So was the man who took it. William England became one of the foremost landscape photographers of his day.

But spare a thought for his porters who hauled up the slopes cumbersome cameras, photographic plates the size of paving stones, tripods and chemicals and portable "dark tents". "The miserable photographer knelt inside, his chief concern being not to develop the sensitive plate, but to prevent the perspiration from his aching brow dropping on to it," moaned one practitioner as he suffered for his art.

While William England was wowing the people back home with his Alpine scenes, Thomas Cook was taking them there, declaring: "It is a great mistake to suppose that travelling in Switzerland is so very difficult that it may not be undertaken by ladies."

Several daring young things took Mr Cook's advice, and bustled off on his first Alpine tour in 1863. The journal of Miss Jemima Morell records their perilous progress along slippery ledges and stone shelves "hewn on the face of a perpendicular rock". But, as one commentator sniffed, such tours served only "to tempt increasingly large numbers of men and women, of the kind not normally venturesome, to make simple glacier tours". In the words of a Victorian alpine writer, "la vulgarisation des Alpes" was underway. Thank goodness Mr England got there first. "We can only hope," opined the Alpine Club newsletter, "that Mr England will include in his next photographic tour visits to a few scenes which the hoof of the tourist's mule could not reach." Indeed.

Picture from Hulton Getty Words by Harvey McGavin

SEE Ted Wragg'S TEACHING TIPS ON THE BIG PICTURE, PAGE 42

Hulton Getty is currently exhibiting pictures on the theme of winter at its London gallery, 3 Jubilee Place, SW3. Tel: 0171 376 4525

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