Friday, 21 February 2014

A Touch of Edward Lear


..I want to topographise & typographise all the journeying of my life – so 

that I shall have been of some use after all to my fellow critters...

Edward Lear


I spent several weeks from December 2013 to late January of this year, immersed in books by and about Edward Lear, as I had chosen his life, work and travels as a topic for a talk. Notes and comments piled up for the more I read the more there was to talk about, in the life of this multi-talented, much-travelled and complex person. So this is just a short introduction to his life, art and travels. 

I first became interested in Edward Lear a few years ago, when I found out that he had travelled through Albania in 1848, and I read his Journals of a Landscape Painter in the Balkans.

As well as his descriptions of the country, I liked his style of writing, with its humour, at times mischievous, and his intimate descriptions of events, both challenging and rewarding. There is something very endearing about the way he lacks self-importance. He has the ability to see through appearances – his landscapes have a sweeping, sometimes visionary quality, that shows the majesty of the land. His descriptions of people too, catch the essential traits and can use them to wickedly humorous effect. He is never unkind – he has sympathy for human beings – but in his paintings the few people – a solitary figure, or sometimes a group – seem to be placed deliberately to show how small people are, in the setting of the land.

From Edward Lear in Albania

From Edward Lear in Albania

Berat today (the quality of photo is poor but the houses and steep hill leading to the fortress are the same as in Lear's day, although there are trees and foliage blocking the view of fortress and bridge.)

We tend not to see people nowadays in such a setting. In our urban environments, created by us, people tend to dominate, for what do people do in landscapes in the modern age, apart from a few farmers and walkers? But in Lear's landscapes people belong there, not just farmers and shepherds, for the only way to travel then was by foot, or on horseback, so the connection with the land was still there.

And this was Lear's way of travelling too. He rose early to catch the morning light for making sketches of the places he saw, and he would walk or ride for several hours, then in the evening he would write up his journals. And once back home wherever that home might be, he would work on his sketches, turning them into watercolours or, less frequently, oil paintings.

After reading his account of travelling in Albania, I became curious about this person, and read Vivien Noakes biography,
and more of his travel journals. I discovered how important travel was for him and how he combined it with his drawing and sketching, which was his livelihood, but also something he loved to do.

And then of course there was his playful love of language, his nonsense rhymes and limericks. Lear began writing these quite early in his life, to entertain the children of friends. He always enjoyed the company of children, as he had retained that childlike openness and sense of wonder that adults can tend to lose, as they become serious and grown up and take on responsibilities and just possibly, consider themselves 'important'. Lear never considered himself in this way, and it was possibly this lack of ego and self-importance that endeared him to children in general, and his many friends in particular.

His early drawings and paintings, when he was still in his teens, were of birds and animals, and there's often that same quality – of fun and sympathy with what he is drawing that makes you feel that if animals could talk, he would have engaging conversations with them, just as he did with children.

Parrot and Pie 

There was an old person of Hove...

He was a prolific writer. As well as rhymes, limericks and other verse, he wrote travel journals – some published in his lifetime, and others published later – private journals, and many letters to friends.

But despite his many friends, Lear often felt an outsider. In terms of his work, he felt he had little recognition, and also felt it counted against him that he had not undertaken several years of study at the Royal Academy. Because of the system of almost patronage, or at least gaining commissions, he had to spend time with the people who could afford to buy his paintings i.e. the wealthy, the landowning, sometimes titled; he even gave drawing lessons to Queen Victoria. Though he did find some good friends among these people, on the whole he found the monied classes superficial, vacuous & intellectually wanting; he felt they wasted their time on frivolous inconsequential activities, balls, social visits etc. He felt much more able to relate to people from other cultures, and he enjoyed being with people whatever their background or culture, as long as they were friendly and peaceable. (He detested quarrels and arguments).

Lear's main interest was in geography & topography because he was after all, a painter, and looking for suitable landscapes to draw and paint. He was not interested in politics, but sometimes history and politics played a big part in his experiences.

Lear's sketch near Amalfi, Italy

One of Lear's Italian watercolours

When he was travelling with a friend in Calabria in 1847, they enjoyed marvellous hospitality with mostly interesting & friendly people, though sometimes Lear felt their hosts seemed a little ill at ease, and there was a tense atmosphere in their houses. He realised later that a revolution was immanent, and that some people had probably feared that these strangers – rare enough in these areas in those days – might be spies. When the revolution did break out, the usual ships were no longer ferrying passengers. They spent a few days in limbo before managing to escape by finding a steamer from Malta, going on to Naples, that allowed them to get on board. If Lear felt frightened by the prospect of being stranded in the middle of a revolution, he did not say so in his journals. One gets the impression he rather enjoyed it. 

I've written about Edward Lear in Crete here 
and Edward Lear in Corfu here

Some of his watercolours are exhibited in Edinburgh's National Art Gallery, until 8th June.

...if there be a life beyond this, our present existence is merely a trifle in 

comparison to what may be beyond. And that there is a life beyond this, it 

seems to me the greatest of absurdities to deny, or even to doubt of.

Edward Lear