Le Carré: ‘far and away the best ski cartoonist in the business’

“I have only ever written by hand. The lapsed graphic artist in me actually enjoys drawing the words.”  John le Carré, The Pigeon Tunnel (2016)

In all the tributes that have proliferated over the last 48 hours, I have neither read nor heard anything about the spy thrillermeister’s first vocation, as an artist. His short career as a ski racer, cut off before its prime, also escapes mention.  The two skills came together in the service of the Downhill Only, the British ski club in the Swiss resort of Wengen.            

When he did a bunk from Sherborne at short notice, 17-year-old David Cornwell hoisted his pack – his own words – and set off for Switzerland in search of experience, enrolling at Bern university to study German in October 1948.  There he got to know Kaspar von Almen, whose family had and still has hotels in the Lauterbrunnen valley and at Kleine Scheidegg, the mountain pass that separates the resorts of Grindelwald and Wengen, beneath the North Face of the Eiger.   

Their friendship led to invitations; three weeks of skiing is said to have helped after a spiritual crisis/breakdown of some kind.  ‘Physical activity brought him out of himself,’ writes Le Carré’s biographer Adam Sisman – and into the path of the formidable Ros Hepworth of the DHO who told him he had a patriotic duty to join the Club.    

David did so in 1950 having met his future wife Ann in St Moritz and informed her that he was likely to ski for England.  In the DHO Journal for that year he is pictured standing at the back of a group of young racers and not for the last time identified as Cornwall.  Although not among the prize winners mentioned in race reports for the season he was selected to join a new training squad of the DHO’s ten most promising young racers. 

David made good progress in the first season and, after training in Wengen in December 1951, headed to St Moritz as the DHO’s second string racer with high hopes for the British Championships and perhaps even the Oslo Olympics.  It was not to be. 

In the prestigious Roberts of Kandahar downhill on January 5th – good snow, bad light – Cornwell was the only DHO racer to negotiate the course without a fall and finished 9th.   The following day, in an international race organised by Skiclub Alpina St. Moritz over a longer and faster course, he was not so lucky, as the 1952 Journal records:

‘In this race David Cornwell took a bad fall and severely concussed himself; nevertheless he finished the race before collapsing which was an amazing display of courage and determination.’

In the Lauberhorn downhill at Wengen on 12th January, a minor fall was enough to bring back the concussion in an aggravated form, with thirty-six hours of blindness.  The medical advice was unequivocal. 

‘As far as I can see I won’t be able to race again so I shall have to ski prettily instead,’ David wrote in a letter to Ann. ‘How foul.’   While recovering at home he passed the time drawing caricatures of Wengen characters which would appear in the 1952 Journal.

David was appointed DHO Assistant Hon Sec for 1952/3 season but without racing to supply excitement, cheap skiing and girls, his interest in the Club soon waned.  His membership lapsed in 1954 but when his friend Dick Edmonds took over as editor of the Journal in 1956, he turned to David as artist.    

There followed a remarkable flowering of graphic and calligraphic art over the ten-year period of Edmonds’ tenure as editor: caricatures, strip cartoons, marginal illustrations and a series of advertisements for his friend von Almen’s hotels.    

Sex is one of the recurrent themes of David’s barbed view of posh Brits at play in a corner of a foreign field he describes as ‘the last foothold of the British Empire.’  His cartoons tread the line between affectionate fun-poking and ridicule, and often cross it, with an undercurrent of angry contempt that readers of later Le Carré will not find surprising; and which the DHO membership may not have appreciated.        

As much is suggested by this cartoon in 1961, a year which saw David’s contribution reduced.      

From the modest and rather charming humour of 1959 (‘the snow’s thrown in at Scheidegg’) the tone of the advertisements David created for von Almen’s hotels, Wengernalp and the Bellevue des Alpes, became increasingly challenging. 

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The 1964 advertisement, signed ‘David Cornwell, the golden boy of advertising’, adopted a sneering tone.  ‘Believe in Pan at all?  Of course not …. because you are a crabbed, humourless, middle class bore.’

Editor Edmonds was not in the least put out, and cheerfully noted his friend’s success.

‘David Cornwell, who has illustrated this Journal for the last nine years (he also does those amusing advertisements for the Scheidegg),  has achieved fame and fortune with his spectacular success, The Spy that came in from the Cold, (sic) written under the pen-name of John le Carré.  David … has now left the Diplomatic Service and lives in Crete, where he is currently engaged on his next novel.’

That novel, The Looking Glass War, was published to mixed reviews in June 1965, and the signature to the Scheidegg advertisement for that year (‘J le Carré fecit with what’s left of his dwindling talent’) chimes with Sisman’s account of David’s depressed and embittered mood, not to mention his collapsing marriage and what is described as ‘a homosexual affair with his best friend’s wife.’  

Once more the advertising pitch was less than ingratiating.  ‘What ho, peasant …. off abroad with the lady wife?  Well, if you must, you must.  We shall hear your awful voice in every hotel from Calais to the Urals.’

Edmonds’ valedictory editorial in 1965 is generous. ‘Our thanks are due to all contributors, especially David Cornwall (!), who when he can be persuaded to take time off from calculating the royalties on his latest books, is still far and away the best ski cartoonist in the business, and whose amusing little sketches have added spice to the otherwise dull and tasteless Editorial fare.’

David returns the compliment in his usual tone.  ‘The artist also wishes to extend his heartfelt thanks to the editor for managing to prune up practically every ruddy drawing, mis-spell his name and spill ink over the originals.’

After that, nothing.  No amusing little sketches by David in the 1966 Journal; no mention of his contribution in the DHO president’s glowing tribute to the Edmonds editorship; no advertisement of any kind for Scheidegg.  Cornwell, it seems, was an outcast, in the cold.           

In due course wealth and continuing friendship with the influential Kaspar von Almen enabled David to buy land in Wengen and build a chalet beside the piste.  Two Cornwells joined the DHO in 1978 and David returned to the fold in 1980.  He wrote a tribute to Dick Edmonds after his friend’s death in 2002, as sharp and graphic as one of his caricatures: ‘….. from the moment Dick stood on his skis, his thighs, knees and pelvis locked into a single rigid arch.  He never fell.  Spot him at any distance on any slope, you saw the same inflexible figure: half guardsman, half wishbone …’.

On a recent visit to the Bellevue des Alpes at Kleine Scheidegg, I asked the owner Andreas von Almen about Le Carré and the advertisements he drew for the hotel: had he ever thought about displaying them? The hotelier’s eyes flicked nervously around the room. ‘David is very protective of his privacy,’ he said in a whisper. I looked around too, hoping for a glimpse of those beetling eyebrows half-hidden behind the Berner Zeitung. ‘There was a run named after him that we used to ski in the forest below Wengernalp,’ von Almen confided. David’s Run: a steep and adventurous line, requiring skill and commitment. ‘It’s not skiable any more – the forest has grown too thick.’

The illustrations in this post appear by kind permission of the DHO. Its annual Journal can be read via the Club’s website

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