Gabriel Charton - Glaciers of Chamonix

Tony Astill has been a bookseller for over 40 years and specializes in rare mountaineering books and mountain art. He is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and an Associate Member of the Alpine Club.  A visit to his websites and is like a stepping out of time and into the finest of rare book rooms.  He is also a congenial and helpful proprietor who is quick to respond with assistance, suggestions and ideas.

Tony Astill's facsimile edition of Charton's 1821 "Glaciers of Chamonix


I encountered an extraordinary book of his while in Chamonix in May of this year: Tony Astill's facsimile edition of Gabriel Charton’s 1821 “tour guide”: “Souvenirs Pittoresques des Glaciers de Chamouny” (Glaciers de Chamouny).  I was there to follow in the footsteps of Percy Bysshe Shelley who visited the area almost 200 years ago in July of 1816.  His time there was very important for it was in Chamonix that Shelley found his literary footing, his poetic voice and where he developed the tailored skeptical philosophy that was to influence his literary output for the rest of his life.

To get to Chamonix most people follow the Viaduct des Egratz which in under an hour takes you effortlessly into the heart of the alpine valley that Shelley took several days to reach. It cuts through the heart of the valley of the Arve, avoids the historic alpine villages that dot the countryside and burrows through granite mountainsides.  It is a busy, smelly, noisy thoroughfare. 

However, it is also possible to follow the old “Ancienne Route Imperiale” which takes you through Bonneville, Saint Martin, St Gervais, Le Lac de Chede, Col de Voza and Servoz (where I stopped and had one of the greatest lunches I have even had at La Sauvageonne).  At this point the valley narrows into what Shelley called the Gorge of the Arve and the old imperial highway was erased forever – there was simply no room for both old and new.  After exiting the gorge, the road jinks hard left and a majestic view of the Vale of Chamonix opens.

This would have been Shelley’s route, and Tony Astill has done students of Shelley an inestimable favour by offering a gorgeous facsimile edition of Charton’s "Glaciers de Chamouny".   If you want to get a sense of what Shelley saw with his own eyes, this is the book for you because it EXACTLY follows the route he followed and contains startling, contemporary images of Chamonix, the Mont Blanc Massif and the Glaciers of Chamonix: Glace de Mer and Bossons.

For example, here is Charton's Bonneville:

Bonneville, 1821

And here is how it looks today:

Bonneville, 2015

Bonneville, 2015

If you can not make the trip yourself, Charton's tour guide will take you step by step into the Chamonix. The valley narrows dramatically at Servox, a fact Charton's images clearly captures:

Saint Gervais, 1821

Servoz, 1821

Snow capped peaks appear and the road climbs up on the shoulder of the ravine reaching a considerable height at Servox which today is a gorgeous little village where properties are on sale for almost USD $2,000,000. When Shelley visited, it was little more than a hamlet. So far, Shelley would have seen nothing that he had not seen in one form or an another in Wales. After Servoz, the road then descends to the valley floor (you can see clearly the gap through which Shelley needed to go in the second image above) before it makes a sharp turn to the left which dramatically reveals the Mont Blanc Massif in all of its majesty. Here is what Shelley wrote:

“As we proceeded, our route still lay through the valley, or rather, as it had now become, the vast ravine, which is at once the couch and the creation of the terrible Arve. We ascended, winding between mountains whose immensity staggers the imagination. We crossed the path of a torrent, which three days since had descended from the thawing snow, and torn the road away…."

‘Glaciers de Chamouny” was produced in 1821 and despite Astill’s best efforts, he has managed to locate a mere handful of surviving copies. As Astill notes, the original publication was aimed at the “wealthy traveller of the day and the elite of Genevoise society”.  No such volume was available for Shelley; a fact that raises some important considerations which I intend to write about in an article soon to be published here.

Charton was an artist and engraver and Astill notes that he was:

“one of the first to introduce the process of lithographic printing in Switzerland.  It was the very first illustrated guide for those who desired to travel the road from Geneva to Chamonix…The original French text…provides a lively descriptive account of the journey and accompanies a series of delightful views that lead the traveller to their destination.”

His process was novel. The facsimile’s forward, by Jacques Perret, notes that he followed in the footsteps of a father and son team, the Lorys, who:

 “painted from nature and then engraved their works from nature.”  Charton, on the other hand “took his inspiration from the works of landscape painters and reproduced them resorting to the new lithographic process, the colouring being done in the workshop. These gouache and watercolour lithographies were then assembled into albums presented to travellers.”

While this facsimile has obvious interest to art historians and those who cherish the Alps, it is of a particular interest to any student of the Shelleys (for both Mary and Percy derived inspiration for major works of literature from their visit to Chamonix).  This may be the only book that traces their path and gives us a sense of what they saw.

But it gives us only a sense, because despite the closeness in time to 1816, the Shelley’s visited Chamonix under very different conditions – in the depths of the “Year without Summer”. The images reproduced by Charton are for the most part “picturesque” scenes (as suggested by the title itself).   Paintings such as "The Priory"

The Priory, Chamonix, 1821

show us a calm, serene countryside, peopled by well dressed travellers; even the glaciers themselves seem somehow tamed. One of Shelley’s own descriptions should suffice to suggest his very different experience.

"As we entered the valley of Chamouni (which in fact may be considered as a continuation of those we have followed from Bonneville Cluses) clouds hung upon the mountains at the distance perhaps of 6000 from the earth but so as effectually conceal not only Mont Blanc but other aiguilles as they call them here, attached and subordinate to it. We were travelling along the valley suddenly we heard a sound as of burst of smothered thunder rolling above; yet there was something earthly in the sound that told us it could not be thunder. Our guide hastily pointed out to us a part of the mountain opposite, from whence the sound came. It was an avalanche. We saw the smoke of its path among the rocks and continued to hear at intervals the bursting of its fall. It fell on the bed of a torrent which it displaced and presently we saw its tawny-coloured waters also spread themselves over the ravine which was their couch."

Avalanches in July!! I will write further about the startling differences in my soon to be published series on “Shelley and the Sublime.”

For now, I am here simply to extol this beautiful facsimile, to recommend that you acquire it and to congratulate and thank Tony for the service he has done to Shelley scholarship.