Early Grays: Thomas draws new highs and lows

Updated: Jan 16

I have been amazed to discover that art is one of several interests I share with my great-grandfather, Thomas Gray (1855-1950).

'The Mournes from Murlough', monotype, 25 x 38cm, Hahnemuhle paper, 2021

I spent many Saturdays in my teens walking in the Mournes Mountains. I began to relish the challenge of pushing myself physically, doing the Mourne Wall Walk (3000 metres of ascent over a 35km route) four years in a row. I didn't know, at the time, that my great grandfather, Thomas Gray, had loved the mountains all his life and was a founder member of the esteemed Yorkshire Ramblers' Club. He spent many Saturdays in the Pennines or Lake District and helped to pioneer climbs on Almscliff Crag, among the best climbing locations in the English Peak District. As a mechanical engineer, (I excelled in Engineering Drawing at school without ever knowing this!) he used his draughting skills to make annotated drawings of the climbs. Thomas spent at least two summers climbing in the Alps. His diary of the first ascent of Gross Ruchen (3138m) from the west in August 1897 is now preserved in the West Yorks Archives.

Thomas's obituary in the YRC magazine recounts: "his friendship with mountaineers whose exploits are now legendary, his passion for accuracy and his amazing memory of events which took place 60 or 70 years ago, made a talk with Gray a fascinating experience for a younger man".

Thomas climbing Almscliff Crag and his friend Clinton Thomas Dent

One of Thomas's legendary friends was Clinton Thomas Dent, described by Wikipedia as "one of the most prominent of the British climbers who attempted the few remaining unclimbed mountains in the Alps in the period known as the silver age of alpinism." Another was fellow Yorkshireman, William Cecil Slingsby (1849–1929). Slingsby first visited Norway in 1872 and has been called the father of Norwegian mountaineering. It turns out that Thomas used his artistic skills to help illustrate Slingsby's now classic mountaineering and travel guide book Norway, the Northern Playground. Thomas's copy was handed down through the family for many years but was eventually offloaded to a charity shop. To replace it today would cost in excess of US$500!

One of Tom's detailed sketches of Norway (c1903) and one of my quickies (1997).

The YRC archives relate how Tom maintained a lively interest in the hills throughout his long life. He was still climbing at the age of 88, making a valiant attempt on the 800 metre high Coniston Old Man in the English Lake District. I suspect it was he who originally bought the two watercolour paintings of the Lake District by Coniston artist H.R.Wilkinson (1884-1975) that now hang in our front room. I also suspect it was he who bought, hot off the presses, the weighty tome entitled Everest that I remember leafing through as a child.

I'm proud to say Thomas had ambitions to reach new highs - and lows! When I took up pot-holing in my teens, I had no idea anyone else in my family had done so before me. Once again, my great grandfather had beaten me to it by nearly a century - and in style! In fact, in May 1896, whilst still a student, he became the second Englishman to descend the famous Gaping Ghyll Cavern in Yorkshire, a detailed account of which is lovingly preserved in the YRC's archives. Once again, Thomas used his draughting and artistic skills to set about surveying and drawing the magnificent cathedral-sized chamber at the bottom. The pictures below are: Tom's rendition of Gaping Ghyll (1896); my preliminary sketch for a school project (1976); Tom's survey drawing of Gaping Ghyll; and a photo of the expedition.

I am very thankful to the help I received from the YRC archivist. He even invited me to join the club for a descent of Gaping Ghyll to help mark for the club's 130th anniversary celebrations!

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