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This exhibition focused on the extensive travels of Edward Lear (1812-1888). Lear was one of the most versatile and prolific artists of the nineteenth century. As an illustrator of natural history, he was supreme. As a traveler and recorder in pictures and prose of landscapes in the eastern Mediterranean and India, he was unrivaled. As the author of nonsense verses and stories, his popularity has never been eclipsed.
He began his career as a supremely gifted illustrator of natural history. From 1837, he travelled more extensively than any other artist, recording the landscape in a vast series of sketches which he worked up into finished watercolours and oil paintings in his studio. He also enjoyed enormous popularity as the author of nonsense verses and stories. Yet behind this indefatigable activity, Lear was often deeply unhappy, suffering from epilepsy, insecurity, and loneliness. Indeed, his restless travelling and enormous productivity served in part to compensate for his depression. As he once declared, ‘I HATE LIFE unless I WORK always’.
Lear left England for the sake of his health in 1837, and concentrated on securing a ‘correct representation of many places little cared for or studied by most painters’. His early landscapes were drawn with a thick pencil in imitation of lithographs, and generally highly finished for ready sale. In 1848, after ten years based in Rome, he set off on a tour of the eastern Mediterranean. For the next twenty years, he was constantly on the move between Italy, Greece, and the Near East. Thanks to commissions from Frances, Countess Waldegrave, he was able to fulfil his ambition to explore the Holy Land in 1858. At the invitation of the Viceroy, Lord Northbrook, he made a lengthy tour of India in 1873-4. During these tours, he recorded the landscape in sketches which he initially drew in pencil, then ‘penned out’ and occasionally coloured. Each sketch was carefully inscribed with the date, time, and its number in the tour. Many thousands survive, but they were only intended as private notations on which to base the finished watercolours and oil paintings he produced on commission or for sale in his studio.
From extraordinary sketches of landscapes and nature, to the nonsense drawings and verses for which Lear is so well known, this exhibition presented over 20 framed works, rarely seen on public display, alongside letters, manuscripts and books.