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Norton of Everest – The biography of a man with mountains of talent

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Teddy imagines how the three brothers looked as seen by mountain guides at Argentière. © Hugh Norton.

Known for his one-time record-holding climb up Everest, the biography of  E.F. ‘Teddy’ Norton reveals, through the words of his son Hugh, how there was much more to Teddy than meets the eye. Hugh Norton demonstrates how his father’s exceptional leadership skills were put to use in all aspects of his life, from his amazing expeditions to his impromptu roles governing foreign lands. 

In this text Hugh delves beyond this professional forte and uncovers his father's artistic talents. Documenting his experiences through pencil and paint, Teddy recreated both his spectacular surroundings, as well as candid sketches of his fellow team members. The inclusion of Teddy’s sketches transforms the black and white text into a colourful world of reality, bringing to life both the external and internal life of an extraordinary man.

He had a notable talent as a draughtsman and painter. This talent was evident in his family as a whole. His mother was a landscape watercolourist of no mean standard in the mould of many Victorian ladies, his brother Jack also a painter of landscape and still life, whose ability Teddy looked up to as greater than his own, and Jack’s elder son Peter was a fine artist too, and taught painting professionally. A recently published collection of artists of the Alpine Club includes paintings by three members of his family – Jack, Teddy himself, and his second son Bill.

He was taught to paint in watercolours and in body colour (transparent watercolour supplemented by opaque Chinese white) by a family friend of his parents, by the name of Snape, whose work he admired. His landscapes, particularly of mountain scenery, flowed from his brush in every decade of his adult life, and at their best form delightful records of his travels, executed with a delicate but lively sense of colour. He would take small sketchbooks with him on many of his journeys, including both Everest expeditions, making on-the-spot sketches sometimes at great speed, and annotating them in pencil so that he could complete them at home.

Left: Teddy’s self portrait in pencil, aged c. thirty-seven. © Hugh Norton.

But arguably he had a greater talent as a witty caricaturist in pencil, though he wrongly belittled it himself, regarding it as a trivial knack compared with the greater challenge of painting. His sharply observed pencil sketches poked affectionate fun at family members and friends on mountain holidays or at home. They are of such quality that he surely could have taken up the trade of cartoonist as a sideline. I remember two with special relish, the sketches he made of himself and his two brothers grotesquely reflected in a distorting mirror, on a day spent in a mountain hut waiting for the weather to clear; and a picture of himself and his three sons lined up in profile, each with their more unflattering characteristics emphasised, which he captioned ‘What a good-looking family!’ (Photo to the right. © Hugh Norton.)

Despite his aptitude as an artist, he was no great connoisseur of painting or of the visual arts generally. But an exception to this was his great liking for oriental rugs and carpets, of which over the years he made a small but well-judged collection. This was assembled mainly in the north-west frontiers of India, where itinerant rug salesmen, carrying their mostly Persian stock on the backs of bicycles, would knock on the doors of the more prosperous houses and lay out their wares on the veranda to be admired. 

Above: Teddy’s sketch – a sportsman’s dream © Hugh Norton.

Click HERE to read more about Norton of Everest

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