Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Lear, Rethymnon and Gortyn

Potter's shop, Rethymnon

Edward Lear visited Crete in 1864. His journal notes were unpublished in his lifetime. He did not manage to complete their revision before he died - the writing up, editing and expanding process that would turn them into the flowing, witty and often amusing prose that characterized his other ‘Journals of a Landscape Painter’ in various parts of the world. But a surprise delight was in store for me when I came across Edward Lear The Cretan Journal – in a bookshop in Rethymnon.

Cafe by the mosque, Rethymnon

Street in Rethymnon's old town

The book contains Lear's unedited notes and many of the drawings he made while in Crete. Just because these journals are raw and unedited, they give us a glimpse of Lear’s state of mind, his very immediate feelings and reactions, as well as his formidable dedication to his work. He would regularly rise about 4 or 5 in the morning and set off early, hoping to find good views for his drawings. 

Lear's Rethymnon

He was beset by many difficulties, only one of them being the lack of those good views - partly because of the bad weather, rain or cloud obscuring what he wanted to draw.

I initially became interested in Lear’s writings because he was one of the few western Europeans in the 19th century who had spent time in Albania and had written about it. His quirky often amusing writing was and is a delight, and his drawings and paintings of the landscape, superb. So I read more of his journals, and Vivien Noakes’ biography of him. I’ve also written about his connection with Corfu.

When he visited Crete, the great 20th century excavations of Minoan sites, such as Knossos and Phaistos, had not yet taken place and so were still unknown. He did visit Gortyn however, where there are Roman remains. Nowadays, it is a fenced off heritage site where you pay an entry fee, but in his time, the ruins were just lying around.

(quotes from Lear in italics)

..all the plain is covered with great or small masses of ruins: masses of Roman rubble, and brickwork and columns, etc. 

Roman remains, Gortyn

At the theatre, several portions of which are standing, I drew till six: the view of the plain is beautiful thence, and greatly pleased me. But it began to rain(!) for the morning is very cloudy: and earwigs and fleas provoked me.

Theatre, Gortyn

So I went on to the ruined Cathedral of St Titus ....

Cathedral of St Titus

....I drew.... till 7.15. Stopped by heavier rain showers. Desolate yet beautiful spot!’

But Gortyn’s fame reaches back into mythic times. According to the guidebook, "Zeus, in the form of a bull, brought the princess Europa to Gortyn, in southern Crete, and beneath this plane tree, their sacred marriage was contracted."

Surely a very significant spot for Europe, not just in ancient times, but for the present day too. And – this has to be a good sign - the plane tree is still here!

The plane tree, Gortyn


Katholiko Akrotiri, Crete - by Edward Lear

(images of Lear’s work from wikigallery)


The Solitary Walker said...

An altogether delightful post, dritanje; Lear's sketches and watercolours are wonderful. I remember once seeing a permanent exhibition of Lear's work, and being amazed at his travelling and productivity. (It may have been in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, but I'm not sure.)

dritanje said...

Thanks solitary walker - Lear was indeed highly industrious and prolific and despite his complaints of fleas, insalubrious dwellings, and the weather!! he was someone who loved travelling and he knew, even though he sometimes longed to 'settle down' that he was inherently peripatetic, too much settledness just made him restless. What a great gift he left us!

Anonymous said...

Lovely pictures, very atmospheric little lanes. I was intrigued by your information about Lear..I recall having to memorise one of his poems at Primary school!

Anonymous said...

Lovely pictures, very atmospheric little lanes. I was intrigued by your information about Lear..I recall having to memorise one of his poems at Primary school!

Ruth said...

I can feel your excitement to find this book and explore his writings and the environs there. What a place, and his drawings capture the washed out light so beautifully. A very rich post!

Caroline Gill said...

Yes, a wonderful and evocative post, Morelle. And yes, the Lear connections are fascinating, fleas and all. I remember large cockroaches from my first visit to the Greek mainland, but fortunately no fleas!

dritanje said...

thanks Jackie, I too remember Lear from school days but it wasn't until many years later that I realised what an amazing painter and writer he was.

Ruth - Lear's paintings capture so well the places he visited - he worked so hard too, walking many miles every day. And his pictures show these places as they were then, mid-nineteenth century, so it's fascinating to see how they have changed since then.

Caroline - the fleas seem to have been endemic in the 19th century but fortunately, not so much now!

Anonymous said...

Morelle: Wonderful post.
Your text is a perfect travel narrative, illuminated with beautiful pictures.
Gortyn, Saint Titus...

dritanje said...

thank you White, it was good to find out that Edward Lear had visited some of the places I saw, and to imagine him seeing the same hills, mountains, stones