Born Holloway, London 1812. Died San Remo, Italy 1888
How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!
Who has written such volumes of stuff
Some think him ill-tempered and queer
But a few think him pleasant enough
He has many friends, laymen and clerical
Old Foss is the name of his cat
His body is perfectly spherical
He weareth a runcible hat.
W. Holman Hunt's portrait drawing of Lear, from Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood;
original in Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]
Edward Lear, with his wild enthusiasm for the extraordinary landscapes he encountered during his wanderings, his sharp eye for the quirks and curiosities of his fellow men, his remarkable and original talent as a landscape painter, his inspired illustrations, nonsense rhymes, limericks and songs, lively travel books and voluminous and delightful correspondence: Lear is without doubt the most endearing of all the nineteenth-century travellers. although deeply loved by his friends for his gentleness and humour, he was a desperately lonely and melancholy man, of delicate health and emotionally frustrated: Franklin Lushington, the Chief Justice of Corfu, to whom Lear was passionately attached, could not reciprocate his emotion, and he never quite dared to propose to Augusta Bell, whom he would have liked to marry.
Born twentieth of twenty-one children of a London stockbroker who fell defaulter in the financial crash, the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, Edward Lear, in the break-up of the family home, was looked after by his much-senior sister Ann. Ignored by his parents, victim of epileptic attacks which were to bedevil him all his life, asthmatic, the child withdrew into emotional isolation.
Mount Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling by Edward Lear
His decision to devote his career to landscape painting was taken early on. His already poor eyesight had been greatly strained by working on coloured plates of ornithological and zoological subjects; further meticulously detailed work became impossible. Not only that, his weak lungs could not support the wretchedly damp and gloomy English winters. Lear left England in 1837 and became a wanderer for the rest of his life. For the first few years, however, he made Rome, filled with patrons, his main base. After publishing three albums of Italian views in 1841 and 1846, he began to explore countries off the beaten track, the Ionian islands and the Greek mainland, Turkey, Albania, Malta, Egypt, the Sinai desert, Palestine and, in 1873 and 1874, India and Ceylon. It was during this journey, his last, that Lear painted the immense Himalayan mountain, Kanchenjunga, from Darjeeling
At first alone, he was later accompanied by his faithful Suliot manservant, Giorgio Kokali who was to stay with him for twenty-five years. Despite often extremely trying travelling conditions, Lear was always excited by the new and absorbing sights, jagged mountains, huge trees, deep wooded ravines, buildings clinging to the edge of precipices, beautiful costumes of peasants. Even after the hardest day's ride, he never lost a moment to sketch and write down his impressions in letters home or in his journals. Whether camping in "the great Gromboolian plain" or "sitting by the streams of the Chankly Bore", Lear was acutely aware of atmospheres. Mount Olympus inspired him with a "mingling of sadness and admiration"; a particularly isolated part of Albania chilled his blood with its "sternest features of savage scenery, so gloomy and severe", while "the intense deadness of old Egypt is felt as a weight of knowledge in all that world of utter silence . . . when one peeps into those dark death-silent giant halls of columns, a terror pervades the heart and head". Not all was so awe-inspiring, however. Lear found Corfu "really a paradise", while India drove him "nearly mad from sheer beauty and wonder".
His marvellously fresh and expressive watercolours and drawings, uninhibited and deeply imbued with poetry, convey something of these feelings to us. Lear himself alternated between satisfaction and disparagement. "The peculiarity of my work lies, I believe, in its accuracy and in its representing - owing to my extensive travelling -- so many renowned places." He felt, though, that his art was "helpless to recall it to others, or to represent it to those who have never seen it." He wanted, anyway, to "topographize & typographize all the journeyings of my life -- so that I shall have been of some use after all to my fellow critters". But having chosen to be a painter of faraway places -- perhaps due to his restless and independent nature, impatience with the frivolities of Society, a need to hide from curious eyes when seized by epileptic attacks, and his loathing for the English climate -- Lear was obliged to travel endlessly in search of new material for the drawings, and paintings which were his livelihood. although his Nonsense books brought him fame and some money, he incurred substantial expenses during his long trips, which did not always see a proper return. He sold his albums on subscription: Journals of a Landscape Painter in Greece and Albania &c (1851); Journals of a Landscape Painter in Southern Calabria &c (1852); Views in the Seven Ionian Islands (1863); and Journal of a Landscape Painter in Corsica (1870), but lithography was a long and laborious activity and the subscribers often slow in paying. Lear launched into painting large oils (with help and encouragement from Holman Hunt, but they failed to win him the recognition and success he had hoped for. although Lear was always in a tangle, emotionally and financially, he was, according to Hubert Congreve: "A man of versatile and original genius, with great gifts, one of the most interesting, affectionate and loveable characters it has been my good fortune to know and love".
Travellers beyond the Grand Tour. London: The Fine Art Society, 1980. pp. 9-11
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Last modified 6 January 2005