A more adventurous tourist undertaking a grand tour of Europe in the 19th century may have been drawn to climb the continent's highest mountain, Mont Blanc. For the rest, there was James D. Howe Browne's Ten Scenes in the Last Ascent of Mont Blanc, published in 1853, and recapping, alongside illustrating, his ascent of the mountain. Following the expedition, Browne wrote in the Times newspaper:
"When I arrived at Lucerne...I had little notion of attempting to ascend to the summit of Mont Blanc; but here I heard such glowing accounts of the scenery from the summit, that I determined to undertake an expedition to the top...if I could reach it in tolerably good condition, I might - being something of a draftsman - make sketches enough to give some idea of the nature of the view, which, from such an elevation, could have no parallel in Europe."
Browne’s undertaking followed a tradition of visiting the alps and ascending the mountain which had begun the previous century.
The first recorded ascent of Mont Blanc took place in the summer of 1786, when Jacques Balmat and Dr. Pacard reportedly reached the summit and could be seen with telescopes from the nearby town of Chamonix. This came after several years of mountaineering parties trying, and failing, to reach the top. These attempts were inspired by Genevan Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, who arrived in Chamonix in 1760. Visitors has been spotted more frequently in the small town over the preceding years, an increase in popularity may have been prompted by William Windham's account of the local glacier - the Mer de Glace - and similar literary descriptions of the surrounding area.
Visitor numbers lulled during the Napoleonic Wars, but increased once again soon after. Mary Shelley famously centered her novel Frankenstein around the area, after visiting in 1816. Shelley called the Mer de Glace “the most desolate place in the world”, and set her meeting between Frankenstein and his creation in the shadow of Mont Blanc. Later, in 1851, Albert Smith climbed the mountain, bringing back drawings and delivering a tremendously successful lecture series to British audiences, recounting his experience. Smith’s trip even resulted in the production of a board game, The New Game of the Ascent of Mont Blanc, in which players would make the journey from Piccadilly Circus to the summit of Mont Blanc. Two years later, when Browne made his trip to the mountain, Mont Blanc and the surrounding area had been fully established in people’s minds as a simultaneously exciting and terrifying place, full of adventure, thrills, romance and the sublime.
Browne echoed these sentiments when he described his ascent of the mountain:
"While we waited for the sun, the scenes were of ghastly grandeur. Leagues above us the summit and the Dome de Gouté were tipped with the moonlight, and stood out like comets in the black sky, while behind, on the opposite side of the valley of Chamonix, along the range of Brevent, the whole of Mont Blanc's shadow in the moonlight was reflected."
Although a highly successful trip, Browne’s illustrations depict a thrilling journey: they show the group of climbers losing their footing and sliding down snowy hairpin bends; the climbers navigate icy crevasses by torchlight; finally, the climbers rest on the mountain. This image seems to be quite reflective of Browne’s journey. In his article for The Times, Browne writes that they dined on “fowls and wine” on the mountain before reaching the summit, where they "produced champagne and drank to the health of Queen Victoria." For many modern mountaineers, this would surely seem like quite a luxurious adventure!
Browne's subsequent work was a large folio with ten lithographs illustrating his perilous, yet successful, adventure. In spite of Albert Smith’s popularisation of Mont Blanc several years earlier, Browne writes in the introduction to his book: "As no one has ever made an attempt to give the untraveled an idea of the splendid scene from the summit of Mont Blanc, I made these ten drawings."
Ten Scenes in the Last Ascent of Mont Blanc has become one of the most impressive and rarest mountaineering books to find. We are delighted to offer a copy with an estimate of £7000-8000 in our Wednesday 19 June auction of Rare Books, Manuscripts, Maps and Photographs in Edinburgh.