This month last century: May 1953

Sixty years ago, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay become the first people to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain (29 May 1953)

Brian Brake 'Portrait of Edmund Hillary', circa 1947. Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Collection. Gift of Ronald Woolf, 1975. Te Papa

Brian Brake ‘Portrait of Edmund Hillary’, circa 1947. Spencer Digby / Ronald D Woolf Collection. Gift of Ronald Woolf, 1975. Te Papa

The two men’s mountaineering triumph came just a few days before Queen Elizabeth II was crowned. Their feat boosted the rejoicing that was already taking place throughout the British Commonwealth because of the coronation.

Knighted soon after this momentous event, Sir Edmund Hillary life’s achievements as a mountaineer and philanthropist are universally well-known. Although he passed away in 2008, he remains eternally a national hero.

New Zealanders are very familiar with Sir Edmund’s profile, partly because his portrait features on the country’s five dollar bills. In contrast to these everyday reminders of the great man are two unique and instantly recognisable artworks that depict Sir Edmund, which are held in Te Papa’s collections.

The first is a photographic portrait (shown at the top of this blog post) taken in the late 1940s by another famous New Zealander, Brian Brake. Brake took Edmund Hilllary’s photograph, probably for his personal portfolio, while he was working in Spencer Digby’s photography studio in Wellington.

Ophelia Gordon-Bell 'Sir Edmund Hillary', circa 1953. Gift of the New Zealand Dairy Produce Marketing Commission, 1955. Te Papa

Ophelia Gordon-Bell ‘Sir Edmund Hillary’, circa 1953. Gift of the New Zealand Dairy Produce Marketing Commission, 1955. Te Papa

The second artwork is a bronze bust (above) sculpted by English artist Ophelia Gordon-Bell. Gordon-Bell met Sir Edmund Hillary at the Eskdale Outward Bound Centre in the English Lake District, where a reunion of members of the Everest expedition was held. Eric Shipton, who had controversially been overlooked as the leader of the expedition, was the centre’s warden at the time.

The bronze bust was exhibited in London in 1955 and subsequently purchased by the New Zealand Dairy Produce Marketing Commission. The marketing commission then donated the bust to the National Art Gallery. It is now displayed on level four at Te Papa in Slice of Heaven: 20th Century Aotearoa.

Read about Sir Edmund Hillary’s life on the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography website

Find out about the reception of Hillary and Norgay’s conquest of Everest on the Slice of Heaven exhibition website

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)