Lear, Far and Near

Edward Lear and the Art of Travel

catalog of the exhibition by Scott Wilcox, with contributions by Eva Bowerman, Clay Dean, Morna O’Neill, Stephen Vella, and Emily Weeks.
Yale Center for British Art, 190 pp., $24.95 (paper)

Edward Lear and the Art of Travel

an exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, September 20, 2000–January 14, 2001

Even during Edward Lear’s lifetime, his nonsense verse tended to detract from the seriousness of his landscape painting. In the corner of a letter Lear had written Ruskin in 1883, the great critic nonresponsively jotted, “Is this the nonsense man?” A few years later, Ruskin in Pall Mall Magazine praised the writer but ignored the artist. Posthumously, appreciation of the art must work its way around (to quote a review from 1930) “the Himalaya of nonsense [whereupon] Edward Lear sits enthroned.” The catalog of one exhibit of his watercolors almost insultingly speaks of “Edward Lear, ‘the landscape painter’ as he was wont to call himself.”

The brilliance and even majesty of Lear’s best watercolors has been shadowed, too, by the mediocrity of the oil paintings for which they were, often, preliminary studies, complete with written color notations in the spaces of the sketch. Yet, after his early years, when, from the age of sixteen to twenty-five, he labored as a meticulous painter of birds and animals, it was as a landscape painter, or topographical artist, that he supported himself, traveling all over the lands of the Mediterranean and beyond, into India, to turn exotic landscapes into saleable watercolors and oils and books of lithograph illustrations of his own prose.

Words came effortlessly to him, as is evident in the bubbling flow of the letters that survive from the torrent he addressed to friends and patrons (often the same) and his sister Ann, who in effect raised him when the Lear family fortunes, once prosperous, turned sharply downward in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. In his visual art, the pencil was Lear’s favorite tool; he wrote, “I am certain, whatever good I may get by ‘color from nature’ I get more by pencil.” His watercolor method was to produce a pencil sketch on the spot, apply washes usually, but not always, later in the studio, and then to trace the pencil lines with sepia ink. From his early ornithological studies he acquired the habit of precision, and though he complained frequently about his failing eyesight—he was, unfortunately for a landscape painter, nearsighted—his work to the last remained markedly linear, with a slightly surreal wiriness. In this he was the opposite of the explosively coloristic J.M.W. Turner, Ruskin’s pet contemporary and by general consensus the greatest English landscape painter of the Victorian era.

When Lear, whose impoverished upbringing did not allow him proper training in oil painting, attempted to learn the necessary skill to produce prestigious large canvases in oil, he found a rather grudging instructor in Holman Hunt, one of the three founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who attempted to overturn the dour, brownish academic style by imitating early Italian paintings, painting on a wet white ground to give their colors brilliance. A jewel-like brilliance was obtained, but the Pre-Raphaelites did not escape a certain sickly literalism, a rather flat, licked, stained-glass look; their work can feel encased and airless. Most of …

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