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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 Lear’s oils, even of wild terrain, usually stayed canvas-bound, appearing whitish, waxy, and overstudied, though indisputably dramatic and painstaking. His own description of his working at a large oil canvas—“sitting motionless like a petrified gorilla as to my body & limbs hour after hour—my hand meanwhile, peck peck pecking at billions of little dots & lines”—indicates a joyless fussiness of attack. At the same time, his watercolors, rapidly done in transit, became robust and free in feeling; they leap into the third dimension in a way his oils do not. Lear’s most dependable living was gleaned from what he called “tyrants”—series of watercolors based on travel sketches, done thirty at a time, applying patches of color assembly-line fashion.

This somewhat pathetic tale of an always struggling artist can be found excellently told in Vivian Noakes’s biography, Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer,1 and her The Painter Edward Lear.2 The melancholy facts do not prepare the viewer for the airy happiness of many of the 129 works by Lear that have been on display in New Haven, or for the poet’s jubilantly grotesque pen-and-ink illustrations of his own limericks and nonsense verse. In the impudent stretchiness and sketchiness of these comical drawings Lear looks forward to the revolutionary liberties that Picasso took. His rapid tinted sketches of landscape, some of them done five minutes apart as he drifted down the Nile in a small boat, anticipate the capture of shifting light which Monet essayed in his series of grainstacks, poplars, and bends in the river.

Lear estimated that he had done as many as thirty thousand watercolors; even at the more likely estimate of ten thousand the number is impressive. Sheafs of them were released onto the market in 1929 with the deaths of Lear’s friend and executor, Franklin Lushington, and of his patron Lord Northbrook; in the long lull of Lear’s unfashionability many were picked up cheap, for as little as a few shillings apiece, by the American collectors Philip Hofer and W.B. Osgood Field, who gave them to Houghton Library at Harvard in 1942. During the Second World War, Donald C. Gallup, an army officer and eventually an English professor, began to buy Lear watercolors in a London shop; in 1997 he donated his collection, containing nine oils and twenty-eight prints as well as 356 watercolors and drawings, to Yale. This is the heart of the present exhibition.

Scott Wilcox, the exhibition’s cu-rator, explains in his introduction to the catalog that rather than range—as did, say, the London Royal Academy of Arts exhibit organized by Vivian Noakes in 1985—over the varied Lear production, he has focused on the topographical art, and drawn upon the resources of the Yale Center for British Art to display over seventy examples of British travel art not by Lear, from the late eighteenth century to the 1860s.

An 1842 map of overland routes from England to India shows the romantic world of Britain’s imperial adventure: most of Africa’s interior is a blank mystery, the Arabian peninsula likewise, yet the coasts are thickly sewn with ports to feed and fuel the busy maritime traffic. The artists who ventured out into the Mediterranean lands and beyond, braving sunstroke, malaria, bedbugs, banditry, and other indispositions, brought back news to England: pre-photographic pictures of places most Englishmen had never seen but could, increasingly, aspire to see. These images served as reportage and as advertisement, travel posters of a sort, encouraging the elite Grand Tourist of the eighteenth century to become the middle-class Cook’s Tourist of the nineteenth.

The Napoleonic wars formed but an interruption in a broadening flow as the English sought to escape their wet, gray climate, their restricting class system, their Victorian inhibitions, their Protestant work ethic with its grim Industrial Revolution. Italy was the principal destination; Iberia (which Lear somehow missed) and Greece, Egypt and the Holy Land, and the Mediterranean islands drew the more devout and determined. The artists, to be interesting, were compelled to venture into ever more exotic locales; Lear’s Views in Rome and Its Environs (1841) showed more or less standard sights; Illustrated Excursions in Italy (1846) presented views less commonly visited. Later books of illustrated travel journals took him to Greece and Albania, southern Calabria, Corsica; he never was able to organize his Egyptian pictures for publication.

Travel, then as now, held the promise of liberation and advancement. Lear had much to escape from: he suffered from asthma in his damp and “smokydark” native environment; he was prone to depression as well as ebullience; his epilepsy, attacks of which occurred as often as twenty times a month, constantly threatened to embarrass and discommode him. How physically realized his homosexual tendencies were remains, as with many other Victorians, hard to determine; Noakes pins the central crush of Lear’s life on Franklin Lushington, a slightly younger, “very amiable & talented man” (Lear wrote in a letter to his sister Ann) with whom the artist traveled in Greece for six weeks in 1849, according to Noakes “prob-ably the happiest few weeks of Lear’s life.” A tender glimpse is given in Lear’s diary, where he marvels at the abundance of flowers in the Greek springtime:

As for Lushington & I, equally fond of flowers, we gather them all day like children, & when we have stuck out hats & coats & horses all over with them—it is time to throw them away, & get a new set.

Though several times serious in his contemplation of marriage—most often to the Honorable Augusta “Gussie” Bethell—Lear avoided proposing, an avoidance as much, perhaps, temperamental as practical for an unpropertied wandering artist. An incongruous work in the Yale exhibit consists of, in eight manuscript pages, a little nonsense narrative, “St. Kiven and the Gentle Kathleen,” scribbled to amuse the children of the Earl of Derby’s household while Lear was a young resident artist there. I transcribed one of its stanzas as follows:

Twas from Kathleen’s eyes he flew,

Eyes of most unholy blue,

She had loved him all along,

Wished him hers, nor thought it wrong.

And another thus:

Here at last, he calmly said,

Woman ne’er shall find my bed.

Ah! the good saint little knew

What that wily sex can do.

Lear himself, with an evasiveness almost saintly, did avoid, to his death in 1888 at the age of seventy-five, that wily sex with its unholy eyes. Nevertheless, the theme of lonely longing and failed courtship recurs in his nonsense verse, perhaps most poignantly in “The Dong with a Luminous Nose”:

For day and night he was always there

By the side of the Jumbly Girl so fair,

With her sky-blue hands, and her sea-green hair.

Till the morning came of that hateful day

When the Jumblies sailed in their sieve away,

And the Dong was left on the cruel shore

Gazing—gazing for evermore…

At the Yale Center for British Art, the great number of works—over two hundred in all—threatens to blunt the viewer’s keen attention. One gathers a general impression of a tropism, on Lear’s part, to dry climates with broad unpopulated views; these scenes breathe with an asthmatic’s relieved lungs. He likes the bare, the austere, the cloudless, the wide-open. The many sketches along the Nile, especially, from his tour of 1867, seem more than dutiful in their attention. His diary recorded, of the upper Nile,

Nubia delighted me; it isn’t a bit like Egypt, except that theres a river in both. Sad, stern, uncompromising landscape—dark ashy purple lines of hills—piles of granite rocks—fringes of palm—& ever and anon astonishing ruins of oldest Temples:—above all wonderful—Aboo Simbel which took my breath away.

Yet the majestic cliff statues of Abu Simbel are sketched at a distance, so that they scarcely seem man-made objects within the folds of the bare hills. At Karnak, Lear is more interested in impressionistically recording the surrounding landscape than in depicting the ruined temple, which was carefully and vividly rendered in the watercolors by David Roberts and William James Müller, also displayed at Yale. It is the contours of land and rocks that grab Lear’s attention, in a kind of geological rapture. The marble rocks of Nerbuddha Jubbolpore (1882), the astonishing crags of Corsica (1870), the riverside formations at Tafa and Gebel Sheikh Abu Fodde (1867), the cliffs of Cape Ducato on the island of Santa Maura, from which Sappho supposedly leapt to her death (1863), the stupendous gorge of Zagóri, Greece (1860), and the dramatically foregrounded rocks and glistening distant peaks in a number of the large oil paintings, including the fine Forest of Valdoniello, Corsica (1869)—these mineral conjurations lodge in the mind, as touched by an instinctive search for the sublime within the inhuman.

Victorian science and piety meet in this exalted geology. Rocky landscapes even more dramatically embraced are reproduced in Noakes’s The Painter Edward Lear: a craggy 1858 perspective of Jerusalem; a precipitous 1856 view of the monastery of St. Paul clinging to the slope of Mount Athos; a stunningly detailed 1838 rendering of Amalfi in pencil, sepia wash, and white bodycolor; gorges at Syracuse in 1847 and Castelluccio in 1843; Mount Sinai in 1852 and the loftily perched monastery of Baarlem in Meteora in 1849—in such powerful, cold-eyed watercolors the adamant substance of the planet seethes as if in the moment of volcanic creation. Trees, too, spoke to Lear, a little more sinuously than to other eyes: those in Corfu from Ascension (circa 1856– 1864) seem to writhe in a kind of pain, an agonized chorus waving in lament. The tree in the splendid watercolor On the Road, Two Hours from Tepelene (1857) has a mountainous grandeur in its low perspective, rooted on a green ground sprinkled with color notations and animated by a troop of costumed Greeks pausing for rest and water. The work is dated and precisely located, and we indeed are there with Lear that sunny day, that exact distance from the wanderer’s next destination. His life flits by in the dates he systematically attached to the visual notations that, in the words of a visitor to his San Remo home late in Lear’s life, “he would put on paper…with a rapidity and accuracy that inspired me with awestruck admiration.”

But even the finest of the watercolors are haunted by a sense of the deferred; these are not ends in themselves but steps on the way to grand oils that will win him the glory and fortune that, in fact, eluded him. The works exhibited at the Yale Center by other travel artists have the unintended effect of reminding us of all that Lear does not customarily deliver. Studious portraits of the Karnak ruins have been already mentioned; equally vivid and circumstantial are John Frederick Lewis’s desert encampment, complete with canopy guy wires and recently slain hares and gazelle, and Thomas Hartley Cromek’s cavernous lower basilica of St. Francis at Assisi, and various Venetian and Portuguese vistas as captured in sparkling, bustling daylight by James Duffield Harding and James Holland. These painters had advantages, a schooled professional briskness compared to which Lear remained a self-taught amateur. How dark, greasy, and uncertain in key many of his oils are compared, say, to the wet, bold, splashy attack of Richard Parkes Bonington, represented among the travel artists by Corso Sant’Anastasia, Verona, Italy (1828) or the luminous meltdown of Turner, as seen in his small canvas Venice, The Mouth of the Grand Canal (circa 1840).

And yet there is a poetry, a poetry of pleasurable vacancy, that gives Lear his own place in the distinguished annals of English watercolorists. The precision of the young ornithological painter accompanies the vague quest of the aging traveler, as he hobbles from one commission and loan and act of aristocratic patronage to the next. “Alas! I needs must go and call on swells,/That they may say, ‘Pray draw me the Estrelles,’” he wrote in the comically complaining “Eclogue, Composed at Cannes, December 9th, 1867,” a souvenir of his momentary close friendship with Mr. and Mrs. John Addington Symonds.

Lear hungered for friendship, and his irrepressibly frisky letters, increasingly Joycean in their whimsy and wordplay, remain as traces of the personal charm that won him valuable loyalties among the upper classes. After his death Franklin Lushington said that the love of his friends was “the best and sweetest of garlands that can in spirit be laid on his tomb.” Lushington also stated, “He really lived upon the letters of his distant friends more than any man I have ever known.” Lear did not quite live, and he did not quite paint oils, but he certainly wrote; he let go, as we say now, in the realm of language.

In his letters he eloquently tossed off desolate truths: “I am doing lit-tle, but dimly walking on along the dusty twilight lanes of incomprehensible life…. I wish I were an egg and was going to be hatched,” he wrote Charles Fortescue, who saved all of his letters, giving posterity a major trove. (A regrettable mass of his personal papers were lost in the domestic confusion when Lear died in San Remo, having outlived even his beloved cat Foss.) Bliss and melancholy keep close, manic-depressive company in his letters. From Egypt he wrote,

And to me what wonders of broad beautiful green & lilac vegetation & far hills & mosques—see thro’ & beyond gt. palms & acacias! O sugar canes! o camels! O Egypt!

And then, up the Nile among the ruins,

The intense deadness of old Egypt is felt as a weight of knowledge in all that world of utter silence. …One peeps into those dark death-silent giant halls of columns—a terror pervades the heart & head.

In India he deplored the “frightful fuss-ticket-baggage-bother and tumult” and called the British establishment “Hustlefussabad” yet punned happily of himself in Delhi “making Delhineations of the Dehlicate architecture as is all impressed on my mind as inDehliby as the Dehliterious quality of the water of that city.”

His poems exude the same giddy juice. His limericks, not exactly limericks, turn in their repetitive last line on an unexpected adjective; they have the gossamer silliness of days among the children at the Earl of Derby’s lavish and carefree mansion, Knowsley. Lear cast himself early as Uncle Arley, the playful big-nosed uncle with his ready pen and nimble hands on the piano, tossing off a verse or song to earn his place at the dining table. If he had his erotic frustrations and his epileptic fits (which, in stout British fashion, he blamed upon a failure of willpower, like masturbation), a fun uncle keeps his pains to himself, or drowns them, as Lear reportedly did, in alcohol.

O My agèd Uncle Arley!

Sitting on a heap of Barley

Thro’ the silent hours of night,—

Close beside a leafy thicket:—

On his nose there was a Cricket,—

In his hat a Railway-Ticket;—

(But his shoes were far too tight.)

The tightness eased in the presence of children—the least threatening of human beings—and in that of landscapes, the more barren and lunarly picturesque the better. The Cricket on Uncle Arley’s nose might be construed as talent and sensitivity; while not Tennyson or Turner, Lear had his genius, but had to come at it by traveling to the land where the Bong-tree grows.

  1. 1

    Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

  2. 2

    Newton Abbot, England: David and Charles, 1991.

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