Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.
(Refrain from The Jumblies, by Edward Lear.)
Unlike other explorers in this series, I doubt whether Edward Lear (1812–1888) slept regularly under canvas. Neither did he venture to the poles, but in his own delightful way his life became one long expedition, and he travelled where few other Europeans had been. He was an extremely talented and prolific painter, who in his time was recognised as the leading natural history painter in Britain. But today that has been largely forgotten, and he is best-known for his nonsense poetry.
Edward Lear was born in Highgate, London, the twentieth child out of twenty-one. His parents were middle class, so couldn’t afford to raise all their children. When he was four, Lear was handed to his eldest sister Ann, then aged twenty-five, for her to raise him independently. Two years later he started to suffer from grand mal fits, which continued through his life. Fortunately he learned how to sense when a fit was imminent, and was able to remove himself from the public before it started. He also suffered from chest problems, including asthma and bronchitis, from early childhood, and when he was only seven he started to suffer from bouts of depression.
By the time that he was sixteen, Lear was drawing to supplement his sister’s income, and specialised in natural history painting, at which he was highly successful: his first published illustrations appeared in a two-volume treatise on parrots when he was only nineteen. The following year he met the ornithologist John Gould, and toured Europe with him, drawing and painting birds for publication.
Lear’s coverage of natural history extended well beyond birds, to faithful watercolours of mammals such as this Weasel (1832).
In 1833, Lear painted a set of superb illustrations for John Gould’s Monograph of the Ramphastidae: or family of toucans, which was published the following year. Among them is Ramphastos toco above. Unlike John James Audubon, much of whose work was painted a few years earlier, Lear pioneered working from live rather than dead specimens or skins.
In 1835, Lear started touring overseas with patrons such as the Bishop of Norwich and Lord Stanley, later to become the Earl of Derby. Their first tour took them walking in Ireland, but the following year Lear visited the Lake District, in the north-west of England.
He sketched Derwentwater, September 1836 in front of the motif during that visit. He also augmented these graphite and wash sketches with watercolour, and frequently wrote detailed information about colours and more on them.
Lear’s eyesight had been starting to trouble him, and he realised that he would not be able to work in the fine detail required for natural history illustration much longer. During this tour, he decided that he would focus more on landscape painting in the future.
The following year, Lear went for a second time to the continent of Europe, travelling through Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and northern Italy before he reached Rome. This graphite and watercolour sketch of St. Giulio, Orta, 26 September 1837 is a good example of these quite highly finished sketches which he made on tour.
When he reached Rome, he met the British landscape artist Samuel Palmer, who was honeymooning there.
Between 1838-1848, Lear lived in Rome, making occasional visits to Britain. This quick plein air watercolour sketch of Venice, the Doge’s Palace is undated, but may well have been painted during this period.
During the 1840s, Lear was busy publishing his first books for a general readership. These reached a peak in 1846, when he published two illustrated volumes of his travels in Italy, the first edition of his famous A Book of Nonsense, and provided illustrations for a book written by JE Gray. He also gave a series of drawing lessons to Queen Victoria, when she was staying at her retreat, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight.
Political disturbances in Italy during 1847 drove Lear to travel further afield the following year, when he first visited the island of Malta, and went on to Greece, Turkey, and Albania. He returned to England from 1849-53, travelling back to Europe from there.
Recognising his limited art education, and lack of experience painting in oils, in 1850 he was accepted as a student at the Royal Academy Schools in London. He didn’t stay long there, and in 1852 made friends with William Holman Hunt, who taught him more advanced techniques of oil painting, and remained a close friend.
The Falls of the Kalama, Albania (1851) is one of many paintings which he made of the dramatic scenery in Albania, which was almost unknown through much of the rest of Europe at that time.
Lear’s finished watercolours of this period often attain an epic magnificence: Mount Olympus from Larissa, Thessaly, Greece was painted after 1848, during one of his many visits to the country.
His sketching methods had also become more refined, as shown in this pen, ink, and watercolour Distant View of Mount Athos from 1856.
His time spent with William Holman Hunt was repaid in his oil paintings, here of Mount Athos and the Monastery of Stavronikétes from 1857. Although Lear does seem to have painted some oil sketches en plein air, he generally preferred to make pen and watercolour studies in front of the motif, and turn those into finished oil paintings back in his studio.
From 1855-58, he lived in Corfu, from where he continued to travel extensively, including visiting the site of Troy, and returning to Albania. He then lived in London until 1860.