Many painters are influenced by the landscape. Only a few feel the need to scale thousands of feet in the name of art. Sarah Freeman meets John Colton.
John Colton isn’t a man who hankers after luxuries.
The day after we meet, he’s heading to the Lake District for the weekend. The 64-year-old hasn’t booked a bed and breakfast – he’s checked the weather forecast and reckons a simple bivouac will do – and instead of taking the train he’s planning to hitch-hike. In fact the only thing he will make sure he packs is a small watercolour set and a sketch pad.
John has been combining his twin loves of climbing and painting since he was a teenager growing up in the Dales and while home these days is a terrace house on a quiet street in Halifax, his natural habitat remains halfway up a mountainside, paintbrush in hand.
“I don’t have to be back home very long before I start getting itchy feet,” admits the retired teacher who has conquered and painted mountains across the UK, Europe and beyond. “I wasn’t made to be indoors for too long.”
He was travelling abroad long before cheap flights and package holidays opened up the likes of France and Switzerland to Brits and as a regular in the Alps, he’s become well-known to the close-knit community of French climbers as the British eccentric who paints thousands of feet above sea level.
Over the past four decades, he’s amassed a significant collection of watercolours and acrylics, capturing mountainous terrain from everywhere from the Isle of Skye to the Himalayas. Some he’s sold to fund future trips, but his living room remains stacked high with paintings which will be the subject of an exhibition at the Alpine Club later this year.
While it’s art which he managed to turn into a career – he was a teacher in Brighouse for many years – it was, he says, the climbing which came first.
Born in Bell Busk, a small hamlet near Gargrave, he moved to nearby Clapham as a youngster when his dad was appointed village stationmaster. A house came with the job, but it wasn’t exactly plush. Electricity didn’t arrive at the property until the early 1960s, in winter it was often cold enough to turn his bedside glass of water to ice and the nearest fish and chips – important to a growing Dales lad – were an eight-mile bike ride away.
However, while the house may have lacked the 21st-century necessities of double glazing and central heating, the move gave John something much more important. It gave him his freedom.
“I spent a lot of time sat on the roof of the house looking out across the Dales, to me it was one giant back garden,” he says. “I’ve always said that my mum and dad gave me one great gift and that was the keys to this magical kingdom. They left me to roam and while yes a lot of the things I got up to were potentially very dangerous, they trusted me.”
Having been given his late grandfather’s rod and tackle, John taught himself to fish and when one of the signalmen, a man known to the locals as Rabbity Dick, introduced him to the art of poaching, he had life pretty much made.
“We always ate well,” he says. “My mum basically said you can catch it and skin it, then I’ll cook it, and so that’s what we did. I spent most of my time outdoors and had my first brush with rock climbing when I was about 15-years-old. I was on my own and somehow managed to make it up a particularly steep scar between Clapham and Austwick. News of my adventure must have reached home and while I don’t think they were particularly over the moon, my parents decided that if I was going to climb rocks I might as well do it properly.
“They persuaded a friend of theirs to take me up to the Lake District and it was there that I learnt the basics and where I really fell in love with climbing.”
It was to be the start of a lifelong love affair with the mountains and, determined not to be tethered to a desk after finishing school, John answered an advert in the Lancaster Guardian for a forestry worker. For a while, a life building fences, driving tractors and planting forests suited him, but he couldn’t shake off a niggling desire to go to art school.
“I’d always drawn as a child and I eventually landed a place at Lancaster College of Art and Design,” he says. “It was a bit of a culture shock. I’d spent two years living in a tent and then suddenly I was in student digs in Morecambe. For the first few weeks whenever I caught sight of the Lakes in the distance I’d burst into tears.”
John soon got used to his new surrounding and credits the course with really teaching him how to draw. Having graduated, teaching seemed the obvious step and it allowed him long holidays in the wilderness, where often the only thing between him and the elements was his 1952 Leica camera which he still carries on his travels today.
“A lot of the places I went in my 20s have changed beyond recognition,” he says. “Chamonix used to be lovely, but now it’s a bit like Blackpool and finding truly remote spots is getting increasingly difficult. I love the wilderness, I always have, although the winter of 1978 which I spent on Everest was a bit extreme. It was so cold I could barely hold a brush. I worked out later that I had walked 400 miles and climbed 72,000ft in a month, which was probably a bit much even for me.”
Arthritis in his knees means these days John has to content himself with less extreme pursuits. It won’t though stop him climbing and he has not long been back from a spot close to Lake Como which is his own slice of heaven.
“Now that is truly unspoilt,” he says. “A friend and I have been going there for years. Each time we leave our pots and pans in a little hole in a granite crevice. They’re always there when we go back and it does feel like going home.”
For more details about John Colton’s exhibition go to www.alpine-club.org.uk