Colin Harrison, Senior Curator of European Art at the Ashmolean, brought his expertise on Edward Lear to Broadway shortly before the close of the special exhibition of Lear’s work.
In a talk on 6th May Harrison showed his deep appreciation of the artist who began as an illustrator of natural history before becoming a well-travelled landscape artist. Lear also wrote about his travels but today he is still especially remembered for his nonsense verse, most famously, “The Owl and the Pussycat.” Harrison said Lear was a remarkable man, “gregarious and convivial but prone to depression and and anxiety.” He was affected by epilepsy throughout his life.
Harrison noted that in 1828 the Zoological Society was created and in 1830 Lear was given permission to draw his monograph on parrots. These initial drawings of parrots were from life produced as lithographs. However, although there were 125 subscribers to this work and 175 copies printed it was not a financial success. Lear contributed more drawings to books produced by John Gould the chief taxidermist at the Zoological Society but did not like him gaining credit for pictures he had produced.
Lear continued with natural history drawings painting the collection of animals and birds held by Lord Stanley at Knowsley Hall in Cheshire. However, he complained about the damage this close work was doing to his eyes.
In 1836, Lear produced a series of landscape sketches of the Lake District. Harrison suggested his intention was to produce a travel book on the area. However, with his move to Rome in 1840, recommended for the sake of his health, Lear had properly embarked on his new career as a landscape artist. In Rome he joined a colony of artists, Harrison said.
His travels took him throughout southern Europe and there are places he returned to during his life. He visited Greece – including Athens and Mount Asos – and Albania during the 1840s. Other destinations he travelled to over the years included Sicily, Corsica, Crete and Corfu.
However, his travels took him beyond Europe – first to Egypt in 1849, to The Holy Land in 1858 and then finally, after earlier attempts failed, to India in 1873. Famous views captured by Lear include Hebron, Petra, Jerusalem, Philae in Egypt and Malabar in India.
Lear’s method of capturing iconic views and landscapes was to produce what Harrison described as a “dictionary of views” which were not intended for sale. He produced his first drawings in pencil then used pen and ink. Lear would often draw many sketches of the same view and produce a topographical key to aid his memory of places. These drawings meant his clients could then pick a view that he could then paint sometimes years after the first sketches were produced.
Harrison said that Lear had begun as a watercolour painter but in 1849 he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art in London to improve his painting ability. He particularly wanted to learn how to paint in oils. This study was not successful and he did not complete the course. Instead the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt became his tutor in oils and Lear acknowledged the teaching in later years.
While Lear always complained of being short of money Harrison said he had benefactors who paid for his travel and his exhibitions were successful and he sold a great deal of his works. The Ashmolean’s collection of his works have been gathered largely thanks to bequests. Harvard also has a very large collection of Lear’s works and the Tate also has some of his sketches.
Harrison’s talk showed the sheer breadth of Lear’s artistic talents and in how he should be more remembered than he is for all his work.
Many of Lear’s works can be found by typing in his name into an internet search engine and if you go to http://www.tate.org.uk/ and type in Edward Lear into the website’s own search engine the works in its collection are shown.