Roger Smith looks at the life of Walter Poucher, a makeup wearing hillwalker who was behind some of the finest outdoor writing and photography in the mid twentieth century
Walking the high peaks and ridges of Britain’s mountains any time from the 1940s to the 80s you might have come across a distinctive figure, usually wearing red and carrying extensive camera equipment. Perhaps you passed him on the way out to your chosen peak; coming back some hours later you might well have found him still at the same spot, patiently waiting for the exact quality of light he needed.
The results were to be seen in a large number of books which many walkers and climbers still treasure today. The man was Walter Poucher, one of the great mountain photographers of his era.
Born in 1891, he started publishing in black and white in the 1940s with his Through the Lens series (Chapman & Hall) and later went into colour with a long list of books published by Constable, all containing superb photographs of our uplands.
Poucher was no ordinary mountaineer though. If you stopped to chat you could hardly fail to notice the most remarkable aspect of his appearance. He favoured full facial make-up including lipstick and rouge and believed firmly that this improved his looks.
This is not surprising when you find out that Poucher was possibly the leading perfume chemist of his day. His three-volume work Perfumes, Cosmetics and Soaps has been through many editions and is still in print. He was top perfume chemist for the Yardley company for over 30 years, and they were happy to give him generous periods of leave to pursue his passion for mountain photography.
Poucher gave firm advice for hillgoers, especially in his pocket guidebooks which were bestsellers in their day. Tweed was his clothing of choice, and for safety one should always wear red, especially red stockings which he wore with plus-fours. He also recommends a string vest as an indispensible base layer. These things may seem laughable today but at the time they were considered sound advice.
In the early years of TGO we ran several reader offers on Walter Poucher’s books and he would come into the office, fully made up as usual, to sign them. His knowledge of our hills was encyclopaedic and it was a privilege to have met him. I have a set of his colour guides, one of them inscribed on the title page “From the author to a special friend”. I’m not sure I deserved that but I certainly treasure the thought (and the book).
Walter died in 1988 aged 97. Plus fours, long red stockings, make-up, bulky Leica camers with an assortment of lenses and tripods… I think it is fair to say that we shall not see his like on the hills again.