Church’s Introduction

The name of Edward Lear has been a household word dear to many friends, young and old, as author of the Book of Nonsense and its inimitable illustrations. His memory has been cherished also by a more select circle, who have known him as the Landscape Painter in many lands, by his sketches and paintings and the Journals of Travel, and he will be handed down to fame by Tennyson’s sonnet to “E.L. on his travels in Greece”, first published in 1853:

Illyrian woodlands, echoing falls
Of water, sheets of summer glass,
The long divine Peneian pass,
The vast Akrokeraunian walls,

Tomohrit, Athos, all things fair,
With such a pencil, such a pen,
You shadow forth to distant men,
I read and felt that I was there.

As the companion of his earliest travels in Greece in the summer of 1848, I am now perhaps the only survivor of his fellow travellers, or even of the contemporaries of his travel years. The friendship formed in the enjoyments and vicissitudes of those days of travel was maintained throughout his after life to the end, in 1887,[1] and kept alive by occasional visits to one another, and by letters, many of which have remained with me. At his death he bequeathed to me the sketches which he had made in Greece while we were travelling together, more than a hundred,[2] carefully numbered and noted as to scene and date. These have been in my possession ever since, and have been a source of perpetual enjoyment, in remembrance of the memorable scenes and the interest of his personal companionship.

And now the journals of his travels as Landscape Painter in Greece have been put into my hands, with kind permission to use them at my discretion, and I have been incited to make some record of that other side of his character, less known to the public, but so deserving of appreciation, as the traveller and the landscape painter, and of the circumstances under which these drawings were made, which have been the delight of so many.

My first acquaintance with Lear began at Rome in the winter of 1847-8. Fresh from Oxford and from a private tutorship at Eton, I was on my way to Athens on a visit to my uncle, Sir Richard Church, who, after twenty years of military service to Greece, since 1827, was now living as a citizen and a senator among her people at Athens, and I was looking forward to opportunities of travel in Greece.

In letters from Rome I spoke of Lear as a possible companion in travel: “I have made acquaintance with Edward Lear and like much what I have seen of him. He has been lately in Calabria, and has some drawings in his studio which would delight you much. I find he has thoughts of going to Greece this spring, but the Bracebridges[3] rather dissuade him, and he is afraid of not being able to do his work there as thoroughly as he could wish, on account of the unsettled state of the country. Of course, I do all I can to throw weight on the opposite scale.”

Again, on leaving Rome in February 1848, I wrote: “I am very sorry to leave Rome and many friends there, especially Edward Lear. I spent my last evening in his studio, Lear diligently penning out his sketches, full of quaint and ludicrous stories of people who came to his studio; I and another man looking through portfolios, had coffee, smoked and chatted, Lear telling, among other things, about Ruskin and Tennyson, quoting piece after piece of Tennyson’s early poems, and finally taking down his guitar, he sang off half of “‘Locksley Hall’,[4] with voice pathetic and plaintive but not melodious. He is doubtful about coming to Greece, but has not given it up.”

In the course of the spring of 1848 I had made my way to Athens, and found a home there at my uncle’s house. I had made excursions in the country and had just returned from the Morea [Peloponnese] and was preparing for a tour in Northern Greece, waiting for the chance of a companion.

One day in June, to my great surprise and joy, I heard that Lear had arrived, with Sir Stratford Canning and his family,[5] who had offered him a passage from Corfu to Constantinople.

Lear was then about 35,[6] known and distinguished as an artist by his studio, both at Rome and in England, by his beautiful series of lithographed Italian sketches, and his illustrated Journals in Calabria, as well as by the first Book of Nonsense published in England, which had made him known as an artist to a wide circle of friends, and also as an humorist, with a singularly felicitous power of expression by pen and pencil, and a gift of ludicrous nonsense, which appealed irresistibly to households of laughing children and childlike souls.

At this time he had many personal friends in high position, who were attracted to him by his social qualities and appreciated his artistic talents of music and painting, and who did themselves honour by encouraging him in the exercise of his talents, by help, by order and commission, on setting out on a new field as a landscape painter in Greece and the East.

He, at the same time, was a man of singular independence of character as the professional artist, mixing with freedom in cultured society, enjoying what it could give of sympathy and richness to a life solitary and often depressed by poverty and ill health.

He had now broken away from Rome and Italy for a time and was making his first start as a traveller and landscape painter in new scenes, Greece and the East, which were to be for the next twenty years the chief scenes of his travel for the purposes of his art.

Looking back through Lear’s travelling life, one sees that he was remarkable for the energy, courage, perseverance and untiring toil with which he devoted himself to the purpose of his profession as the travelling landscape painter and topographical artist. The effective reproduction in form and colour of the choicest scenes of the countries he visited was the one genuine object of his travel; the pecuniary returns of his pictures, beyond the payment of the necessary expenses of travel, often incurred amidst broken health and peculiar difficulties, were very secondary objects.[7] He was generous, to a degree of recklessness, in his support of relations and faithful servants dependent on him.

It was a peculiarity of Lear’s travels that, with the exception of his two Greek tours in 1848-9, all were undertaken alone, or only with his faithful Suliot servant.[8] His reasons for preferring solitary travel, on professional grounds, as more conducive to serious study and artistic reality, have been elaborately stated in the preface to his Egyptian Journals in 1867.

These journals, very detailed and too voluminous for publication,[9] are introduced by a preface with an interesting inscription in the following words: “To William Holman Hunt, from whom, more than anyone, I have gained knowledge in the art of painting, and in whose society I have passed some of the happiest days of my life.”[10] He there says, when about to give to the public the results of the Nile voyage in an “Illustrated Journal”:

In each voyage it has been a rule with me that hard and constant study and work should be the condition of my going abroad at all; and since with myself quiet and study must needs go hand in hand, both of my Nile voyages were made alone. It is sometimes only by such isolation that the painter or poet can work out his own thoughts in his own way, and although a lonely life of travel is not without its drawback, yet the incessant occupation required to work up the portions of a topographic life is in general no bad remedy for the absence of social sympathy.

It was another characteristic of his travels that he made copious journals of his daily work, which he preferred to publish as they were written, in illustration of the drawings they accompany, as “the best method, when read in combination with the illustration annexed, of giving a clear idea of the scenes.” He goes on to say that as it was his aim to give as much as possible a topographical reality to the scenery he drew, the combination of journal and drawing form part of his plan as “Topographical Artist.”

His descriptions of himself as Topographical Artist marked his purpose of making truth and fidelity the special object in his work, without attempting to give to his landscape effects of his own device or imagination which did not belong to the scenery of that particular region, or, as he said, to make “fiction for the delight of those who prefer prettiness to truth.” The lines of hill and mountain, the depth of valley, the breadth and varied colouring of plain, the character of foreground, were reproduced with stern fidelity in the exact but delicate drawings.

These serious characteristics of Lear as a traveller, in the struggle of life in pursuit of his art, were little apparent to those who saw only the outer life of the man of society, known only as the author of amusing Books of Nonsense.

These words of Lear and his own use of his journals seem to me to justify the frequent use of these journals in illustration of his sketches in this account of the short journey in Greece with him, with which my own reminiscences occasionally are mingled.

On his journeys he at first drew, sometimes in colour, but mainly in pencil, afterwards penning out his sketches as opportunity allowed, making notes of colour as he drew, on the surface of the sketches, and adding any chance incident, or volatile thought, and often quotations from Tennyson which expressed what was passing in his mind, description of scenes, or thoughts, humorous or pathetic.

The words of his journals have been in great measure adopted, because, when the artistic terms descriptive of colour on the spot have been retained, they are professedly the words of the landscape painter, and the peculiar style and wording of his humorous or grotesque incongruities are the notes which came so naturally to the author of the Books of Nonsense.

[1] In fact Lear died on Sunday 29 January 1888.

[2] Lear’s numbered sequence goes up to 143a; present locations for approximately 55 drawings have so far been traced.

[3] Selina Bracebridge was an amateur artist with a studio in Athens. She and her husband Charles were well known in Victorian literary, artistic and philanthropic circles; in 1847-8 they were accompanying Florence Nightingale on a visit to Rome.

[4] This is the earliest mention of Lear’s setting a Tennyson poem to music; he composed (by ear) approximately twenty Tennyson settings, nine of which were transcribed and published.

[5] British Ambassador to the Ottoman Porte.

[6] He was 36.

[7] Lear was wholeheartedly committed to his profession, but his primary reason for travelling was to earn a living.

[8] Georgio (or George) Kokali, from Suli in Epirus, worked for Lear from 1856 to 1883 and accompanied him on all his major travels.

[9] Lear wrote up his two Nile journeys (of 1853 and 1867) during the winter of 1868, but they were never published and the manuscript is now lost.

[10] Lear met Hunt in 1852; they worked together in Sussex, where Lear experimented with painting (rather than just sketching) outdoors. They continued to meet and correspond throughout their lives.

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