Views from the Edge
Views from the Edge: The Pioneering Climbing Photography of the Abraham Brothers.
‘Views from the Edge’ is the new winter exhibition at the Armitt Museum, Ambleside. It focuses on the work of two brothers whose name is inextricably linked with the early years of photography in the Lake District – Abraham. A collection of over 700 Abraham brothers glass plate negatives, owned by the Fell and Rock Climbing Club of the English Lake District, is now housed at the Armitt.
Several generations of the Abraham family were photographers. The first, George Perry Abraham, born in 1844, established a studio business based on the corner of Lake Road, Keswick, after an apprenticeship with Alfred Pettitt. His sons, however, eclipsed his reputation with their dramatic photography, producing some of the most exhilarating images in the history of early rock climbing.
George and Ashley Abraham, popularly known as the ‘Keswick Brothers’, grew up with the development of rock climbing. In the early days it was dominated by the likes of John Robinson and W. P. Haskett-Smith, but by the 1890s was gaining popularity as a sport for young men. Under the tutelage of the legendary Owen Glynne Jones, the brothers became serious climbers, so much so that the partnership of these three men dominated the sport during this period. Years later, another giant of the climbing world, Geoffrey Winthrop Young, described George Abraham as a climber who interested him, ‘…graceful to watch… and one of the earliest of the home school to climb consistently by balance rather than grip.’ The technique for which Owen Glynne Jones had been so closely associated.
The astonishing achievements of these early climbers, with their primitive equipment and iron nerve, were unsurprisingly often met with scepticism. In response to the first ascent of the crags on the Wasdale face of Scafell, the typically irascible proprietor of the Wasdale Head Inn, ‘Auld’ Will Ritson, remarked “There’s nobbut ya way up’t Scafell crags, that’s be’t Broad Stand on’t Eshgill side of Mickledooer ridge an nowt but a fleein’ thing could git up’t crags on’t Wasdale Head side. Nivver neahbody hed gitten up theer, and neahbody nivyer wad”. But of course there were many who followed in the footsteps of John Robinson, Professor Norman Collie and later, Siegfried Herford and George Sansom, to prove him wrong.
This was also a time when photography was breaking out of the bounds of the studio, its potential being recognised and explored. The Abrahams became the pioneers of camerawork from the perspective of the climber, a very different prospect to ordinary landscape photography. In dangerous and difficult conditions, laden with heavy equipment (often weighing over 20lbs), the brothers would capture the climber in action. Significantly, during this period Glynne Jones was writing his classic work “Rock Climbing in the English Lake District” and asked the brothers to supply images.
Ashley Abraham went on to be the first president of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club of the English Lake District in 1907 and the brothers between them wrote many books about the Lake District and further afield, illustrated with their own fine photography. These not only illustrated the intricate details of the sport and the great skill of the early climbers but also something infinitely more subtle. In his ‘Mountain Adventures at Home and Abroad’ George Abraham begins his first chapter with the quote from Byron, ‘to me high mountains are a feeling’. Perhaps something of this has also been caught through their lens.
Succeeded in the business by Ashley’s son, the Abraham photographic business lasted for 101 years.
The Exhibition runs throughout the winter upstairs in the library of the Armitt Museum. We would like to acknowledge the invaluable help of Bill Birkett in producing the narrative to the exhibition and Chris Sherwin of the FRCC for the design. I would also like to thank both for their patience and enthusiasm. Finally the Armitt would like to thank Sue Steinberg for permission to use images from the Abraham archive.