Category Archives: Athens

Friday 2 June

Edward Lear, Athens, 8 June 1848
B1990.28.5, Yale Center for British Art, Gift of George E. Dix, B.A. 1934, M.A. 1942


Rose with the sun and drew the Acropolis of Corinth from the deck {sketch 1}. Breakfast at 6, or 6.30. Crossing in steamer to Corinth, arrived 8 a.m. Very grand, infinite picturesque people. Sketched slightly {sketch 2}. Walked up to city with Lord A. L., the rest drove. Crowd of wonderful dresses!

Went to see column of old temple, Acropolis magnificent. Time frittered by party in starting. Lord A. and I walked up. Dim, grey, hot day. Long ascent to walls and gate. Vast extent of ruin. By degrees we climbed to summit, but a cloudy mist almost hid the lower world and but little was visible, but the sentiment remained of extreme grandeur. We all walked down to hotel.

Took leave in two coaches.[14] Lord A. and I on rickety boxes, but found it didn’t pay, so we mounted horses. No. 1 with two rope stirrups, No. 2 with two shovel ditto, No. 3 with one only, and this arrangement fell to me. Nevertheless, I stuck on, but Lord A. soon fell off. Seven mile ride — village — and what figures!

Met our steamer at Kalamáki — lunch on board.[15] Coast of Greece less beautiful near Salamis. Sunset! At Piraeus 9 p.m. Long, tedious delay. Salutes and fireworks, setting off of coaches. Sleepy journey to Athens, fine hotel [Hotel D’Orient]. Supper with Lord A.

Edward Lear, Athens: [Hephaisteion], 5-6 June 1848
TypDr805.L513 48f, reproduced by permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard
These first words of his journal bring Lear to Athens, in the suite of the Ambassador, and give a glimpse of his character, his poetic enthusiasm, his love of colour and beauty of scenery, his refinement, yet practical character. He could hold his own and talk on equal terms on artistic and poetic subjects with the most cultured, yet he knew that his “sphere” was that rather of the professional working artist, and that he must break away from the conventional society which had an interest and charm for him, to do his own hard work, in his own way, and make his own life.

Now in Athens his artistic life began. He at once broke away from the high “sphere” in which he had arrived, to do his own professional work. I saw him the day after he had arrived — awed, delighted, bewildered and amazed with all around him. His journal says: “Surely nothing on earth can surpass this mass of grandeur and beauty and interest.”

Edward Lear, Athens, 5,6 & 7 June 1848
Private Collection

For the next ten days his journals describe him as giving himself up to the study of the scenes and art around, rising up before sunrise, day after day, drawing upon the Acropolis, Pnyx {watercolour B i}, Theseum {sketches 4 and 10}, Olympeium {sketch 30} and Athenian landscape {sketch 19}, “working like mad,” through the great heat, “tremendous heat,” “a dry, burning heat”, working till sunset, his journal breaking out: “Who shall describe this place? How wonderfully beautiful!” “Seeing nothing else and no-one”: once at Sir Edmund Lyons’[16] house, “a long and dull dinner”; once at General Church’s where he meets “a motley group, Greeks, politics, pipes,” all are described as potius aper, “rather a bore.” “Doing nothing but draw, draw, draw” and penning out — with occasional lessons in drawing to Miss Canning. He had come with the Cannings on the invitation of Sir Stratford to accompany them to Constantinople.

Edward Lear, Athens, the Acropolis, 5-6 June 1848
Private Collection

Meanwhile I saw him most days on his sketching ground and was with him while he drew, and gradually our plans of travel grew, as his journal testifies.

[14]Before the construction of the Corinth Canal travellers went overland seven miles across the isthmus from the village of Corinth to Kalamáki; another naval vessel met Lear’s party there and took them to the Piraeus.

[15]Lear does not say what they had for lunch. According to Loftus’ own account the ship had run out of provisions and the crew had resorted to eating tortoises, which were plentiful on the isthmus (p.148)

[16]Minister and plenipotentiary at Athens.

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Wednesday 7 June

I wonder if I should repent very much if I decide not to go to Constantinople.

Edward Lear, Athens, 5, 6 & 7 June 1848
Private Collection
Edward Lear, Athens, Temple of Nike Apteros, 5,6 & 12 June 1848
Private Collection
Edward Lear, Athens, 5,6 & 7 June 1848
Private Collection
Edward Lear, Athens, 8 June 1848
Courtesy of Dreweatts Auctioneers
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Friday 9 June

Drew below Areopagus. C.M.C. came. Talk about Grecian tour.

Edward Lear, Athens: [Hephaisteion from the Acropolis], 5, 9 &10 June 1848
TypDr 805.L513.48a, reproduced by permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard
Edward Lear, Athens, 8 & 9 June 1848
Private Collection
Edward Lear, Athens, 5,6 & 9 June 1848
Private Collection
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Tuesday 13 June

Drew by the Olympeium. Arranging for tour with C. Church and Janni.[17]

Edward Lear, Athens, 12 June 1848
Private Collection
Edward Lear, Athens from Mount Lycabettus, 12 June 1848
Private Collection

[17] A Greek dragoman engaged to cater for the trip and to arrange for the hire of the (seven) horses and transport of baggage.

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Wednesday 14 June

Wished the Cannings goodbye. Drew at Colonos, returned early. Further arrangements with C.M.C. and Janni. Wrote Police, calls till 3 p.m. Drew at Jupiter Olympus till sunset. How wonderfully beautiful! Dinner and tea with Lord A.

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Thursday 15 June

Rose before daylight, having packed bag and drawing materials for journey. Paid Janni. Breakfast. Settled all things. It was 6 a.m. before we started.

Edward Lear, Athens Royal Palace, 12 June 1848
VIS4486, reproduced by kind permission of Museums Sheffield

In the course of ten days at Athens, between 3 and 14 June, Lear had collected more than 20 sketches (numbered from 3 to 24)[18] of Athens and its neighbourhood, of striking effect. Many of these contain features which have since disappeared from building and landscape, of picturesque and historic interest: the tall, brown Venetian watch-tower, which then stood in striking contrast with the straight lines of walls and temples, the Turkish bastion and gateway, the battered walls, the threshing floors on the platform of the tall columns of the Olympeium, gaunt and lonely, the olive groves on the plain, in their solemn dignity and rich golden vesture, with much more extended area than in later years, the groups of peasants in their native dresses, under the pergola of straw shelter on the plain, or in picturesque attitudes on the ochre rocks {sketch 27}, the Parthenon standing amid its wilderness of white marble blocks and long grass; all these features belonging to Athens of 60 years ago were represented in the grave and solemn character of Lear’s sketches of 1848 — all have disappeared amidst the growth of modern civilisation.

Edward Lear, Athens, 12 June 1848
VIS4487, reproduced by kind permission of Museums Sheffield

It was 6 a.m. before we got under way, Church and I in saddle, also Janni in flare-up red Turkish dress, Cook and 3 baggage horses followed. Soon after we had left the city, perhaps an hour, we were galloping, when my horse came down like a shot. I fell over his head and was much hurt in the shoulder and side.[19] We pass behind Lycabettus and go straight towards Pentelicus leaving Hymettus right. Vast lines, wide plain; two little villages, Marousi, Kephissia. My arm getting worse, walked. Trees increasing and larger. 10.30 a.m. reached Stamata –very ill and in great pain. Church advised going back, but resolved to go on. Janni gave us an excellent dinner in the tent under almond trees. Went on 2 p.m., always walking. Pine scenery. Came in sight of Bay and Plain of Marathon, descent among fine pines. Drew twice {sketches 32, 33}, though in no condition for drawing. Cut across to Tumulus, desolate flat plain. Church gallopeth. Herds of goats and cattle. Sunset. Came by valley full of myriads of goats to Marathon. Vrana, Demarch’s [Mayor’s] House, good tea. Arm very bad, rubbed by Church. Mosquito.

Edward Lear, Marathon, 15 June 1848
VIS4489, reproduced by kind permission of Museums Sheffield

[18] The Athens sketches are numbered from 3 to 31.

[19] Lear often suffered mishaps with horses: see, for example, his sequence of humorous sketches made in Sicily the previous year (British Museum).

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Friday 30 June

Rose about 2 a.m., having resolved to go on my own hook, unimpeded by waiting for others, to draw the Katavothra range before the sun was up. So before 3 a.m. I was a long way down towards the plain, and drew till 4 {sketch 98} — a magnificent bit of scenery, all as yet dark and solemn. These were the sounds accompanying: far barking dogs, clattering storks, tinkle of innumerable goat-bells, blow bugles.

Edward Lear, Zeitum (Lamia), 30 June 1848
Private Collection

Came up and breakfasted. This khan is not at all bad, barring the row the many soldiers make on all sides, particularly when they sing (so to speak). (Khan so called generally, because one tries to live there, but can’t!) We didn’t go off till 5.30 a.m. — and hot it was along the plain — grasshoppers to boot. Hotter and hotter than ever to the Spercheius, about which were pretty bits of scenery, and, looking back, Zeituni showing like a border town, which it is. On the bridge of Alemanni I drew {sketch 101}– it was broiling — horses meanwhile in the river. C. and Janni rode on soon, after the baggage, I drew again. Not long after we entered the marsh, on the paved road running just below the cliffs — stretch of marshy ground towards the gulf or sea.

Walking on, I came to the hot springs covering all the slope from cliffs to sea with white crust. {sketch 103?} Just beyond was Janni, pitching the tent. Drank at a fountain — query that of the Spartans.

Edward Lear, Thermopylae Hot Springs under Mount Kallidromos, undated
Private Collection

Drew the “Straits,” though they are not much of “Straits” now {sketch 104?}, and mooned about with C.M.C. along the side of the blue, hot lake.

Edward Lear, Thermopylae, 30 June 1848
TypDr 805.L513.48e, by permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard

Dinner at 11 a.m., and now I am lying below the tent, the vast foreshortened mountain above, fringed with underwood and pine ad infinitum on a ground of purple rock. Doves coo. Slept, woke at 1.30. Fine and picturesque peasants at fountain. Leeves goeth back to Zeituni, to my great pleasure. Janni and luggage went on ahead. Church, I, two horses and Paniotti, a new man, ascended for a long while by pleasant, shady low-wooded paths, with views all over the Gulf. Once we drew — the (narrow) plain below the Thermopylae hills, which are really exquisite! — the rich unfoldedness of the purple plain, and the immensity of the Katavothra range! — altogether one of the most splendid scenes I ever drew. {sketch 105?} Onward — dells with water, and hills with oak, and lilac hemp, blooming myrtle, lentisk, hollyhock and cistus. An hour before sunset we had climbed up a rocky ravine, above the orange coloured sides of which the Castle of Bodonitza had long been visible. This ravine was surprising as to colour — lit up by the last sunlight, the richest apricot, with tufts of green foliage and overhanging oaks, and bright or dark pines feathering, down, down, down, to an abyss shadowy — dark vegetation and gray rocks, beyond the golden plain, and the lilac sea and hills. Farther on, the sun having set, we descended to a valley with a lovely rushing fountain, near a village where the women were dressed like those of Atina[45] — and dogs, such dogs, came out devouringly.

Edward Lear, Near Vodonitza, 30 June 1848
Private Collection

Here we conferred on our future route. It was necessary to reconsider our original plans, which were to take the mountain road under Parnassus, Delphi and Solona. But Lear’s indefatigable energy, especially during the last few days in the deep sunk valley of the Spercheius, in the brooding heat (thermometer at 90°) at the end of June, had tired him out, suffering as he always was from pain in his shoulder — and we considered that it was more prudent now to make for Thebes by an easier route, so as to be within reach of Athens, in case of need.

Edward Lear, Helicon and Lake Copais from the mountains above Kokhino on the way to Thebes, July 1848
Private Collection
Edward Lear, From the Mountains above Kokhino on the way to Thebes, 3 July 1848
Courtesy of Shepherd Gallery, New York
Edward Lear, Near Vodonitza, 3 July 1848 Private Collection

It was well we did so. Though several drawings in the first days of July were done during the ride to Thebes by Atalanti and Proskynas {sketch 107}, and some of his best sketches were made of the plain and mountains round Thebes {sketches 112, 115}, yet some of his latest drawings numbered 115 and 118 contain the evidence of his own notes that he was getting ill.

Edward Lear, Near Thebes, July 1848
Private Collection
Edward Lear, Thebes, 4 July 1848
Private Collection

One day in July a high cold blast of North wind swept down the plain, and one of his sketches contains the words “high wind — so cold — must go in for coat,” and on another numbered 118, his last, after a ride to Plataea, “Ah mi sento male!”

Edward Lear, Thebes, Thiva, 4 July 1848 Private Collection

This was followed by symptoms of fever which made him helpless and at times delirious and a cause of great anxiety for several days. We were lodged in a Greek house, with quiet hospitality and kindness, and under treatment by the local Greek doctor, before the doctors came out from Athens and he was fit to be removed.

Edward Lear, Thebes, 4 July 1848
Private Collection
Edward Lear, Plataea, 5 July 1848 Private Collection
Edward Lear, Plataea, Shepherds resting on ruins, 5 July 1848
Private Collection

So our tour, which had begun badly, came to an abrupt and unfortunate conclusion. No more need be added to these notes of travel than that it is pleasant after all to recall that the confidences and sympathies which illness called out between us as fellow travellers, under trying circumstances, contributed no less than the brightest remembrance of much enjoyment, to lay the foundation of a friendship which followed and lasted for forty years, until the end of Lear’s life.

Edward Lear, The Temple of Hephaestus, 26 July 1848
Private Collection

Lear recovered sufficiently at Athens to be able to take some more sketches. {sketches 125, 126, 127, 128-131, 143A} At the end of the month of July we left together in the steamer for Constantinople, and he made the last sketch, the columns of the temple of Athena from the deck as we rounded the promontory of Sunium.

Edward Lear, Athens, 23 July 1848
TypDr 805.L513.48z, reproduced by permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard

This short tour, the first episode in his travels, was sufficient to give evidence of his fine artistic taste and poetic imagination, no less than of those qualities as an humorist for which he is better known. It was also shown that the happy outpourings of excellent folly in his “Books of Nonsense” were often produced in resistance to and the reaction from fits of depression and low spirits, the natural outcome in times of ill health and disappointments and failure of attainment to high ideals. My short experience in his companionship gave opportunity to feel the truth and the justice of the memoir which followed his death, by his well-known friend and fellow traveller in Greece next year, of which this is an extract: “From first to last he was, in whatever circumstances of ill-health or difficulty, an indomitable traveller. His sketches were not only the basis of more finished work, but are an extraordinary record in themselves of topographical accuracy, abounding in beauty, delicacy and truth.” [46]

Edward Lear, Kara, July 1848
MS Typ 55.26 (469), Reproduced by permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard

[45] In the Abruzzi, which Lear had visited in 1842.

[46] Lear’s lifelong friend Franklin Lushington, who was to travel with him in the Peloponnese in 1849, is given the last word; Church is quoting from the entry on Lear by “F.L.” in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britanica (1911).

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Wednesday 19 July

Hotel d’Orient, Athens,

July 19, 1848.

Here I am having made somewhat of a dash into Greece, but most unluckily, obliged to haul up and lay by for the present.  You may perhaps see my handwriting is queerish, the fact is I am recovering rapidly thank God, from a severe touch of fever, caught at Platœa & perfected in ten days at Thebes.  I did not think I should ever have got over it, nor should I, but for the skill of two doctors, & the kindness of my companion Church.  I was brought here by 4 horses on an Indiarubber bed, am wonderfully better, & in that state of hunger which is frightful to bystanders. I could eat an ox.  Many matters contributed to this disaster, first a bad fall from my horse, and a sprained shoulder, which for three weeks irritated one’s blood, besides that I could not ride.  2nd. A bite from a Centipede or some horror, which swelled up all my leg & produced a swelling like Philoctetes’ toe, and lastly, I was such a fool as go to Platœa forgetting my umbrella, where the sun finished me.  However, I don’t mean to give up and am very thankful to be as well as I am.

I came you know here on June 1st with Sir S. Canning, and staid a fortnight working like mad.  On the 13th Church and I set out. Chalcis is most interesting & picturesque, what figures! would, ah! would I could draw the figures!  We then resolved to do Eubœa, so, 19th, Eretria, very fine.  Aliveri, & Kumi.  21st. Pass of mountains, grangrongrously magnificent!  Alas! for the little time to draw!  28th Lamia.  29th a run up to Patragik a queer mountain place.  All these things we were constantly warned off, as full of rebels, brigands &c., but we found all things as quiet as Pimlico.  30th Thermopylæ!  how superb!  & Bodonitza.  July 1st. Costantino & Argizza.  2nd Proschinò & Martini.  3rd, over Kokino & the mountains to Thebes.  Only this last, of the last 3 days was good.  Thebes is sublime, but as I said, the day following it became a grisogorious place to me.

I must stop for I am not much writable yet . . .

Edward Lear to his friend Chichester Fortescue, Letters of Edward Lear, ed. Lady Strachey (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1907), pp. 10-11.

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