An Exile in Paradise: The Adventures of Edward Lear

Derek Smith recently uploaded the three episodes of An Exile in Paradise: The Adventures of Edward Lear to YouTube.

A three part series
In 1848 Edward Lear, writer and illustrator of nonsense verse, set out on an epic journey through Greece and Albania. But Lear was more than just a humorist, he was an excellent landscape artist, traveller and writer of travel books. With Lear’s writings and drawings as a guide, presenter Robert Horne followed Lear’s journey through the awe-inspiring scenery of the southern Balkans, where he encountered fascinating reminders of a turbulent past and the warmth of the modern inhabitants: the inspiration for all travellers.

Producer: Dr Quentin Russell
Director: Derek Smith
Executive Producer: Finian O’Sullivan

Programme 1: Into Ottoman Lands
In the attractive setting of Corfu, Robert Horne outlines Lear’s background and some surprising connections with Greece and Athens before embarking on the journey proper from Thessaloniki to the Albanian border, taking in the breathtaking beauty of the mountain lakes, Prespa and Ochrid.

Programme 2: The Devil Draws
As an artist Lear was attacked as Satan throughout Muslim lands, something that would not happen in modern Albania. Whilst exploring the remains of Albania’s rich heritage and the Ottoman past Robert Horne is intrigued by Albania’s recent history and how the eccentric rule of the communist dictator Enver Hoxha casts its shadow over the present.

Programme 3: Greece Coast to Coast
Lear was impressed by the legacy of the struggle of the local people against Ottoman oppression. Nowhere was this more exemplified than in the mountains of northern Greece. Robert finds that stories of those times are still celebrated, and Lear himself remembered, but the traditional way of life pursued in this breathtaking landscape is fighting to survive against encroaching modernity.

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Edward Lear, Fomm Ir-Rih, Malta (1866)

Edward Lear, Fomm Ir-Rih, Malta.
Pen and brown ink and watercolour; inscribed, lower right: Fommer Rih / 2 P.M /  March 1 1866 / 79, further inscribed with colour notes, unframed. 153 by 253 mm.

Sale, London, Bonham’s, 16 September 2009, lot 163;
bt. by the present owner.

According to Lear’s inscription, this plein air drawing was executed at 2 o’clock in the afternoon on 1st March 1866. Lear has depicted the dramatic and geologically diverse landscape of Fomm Ir-Rih, which is located on the west coast of Malta.
Having left England for Venice in September of 1865, Lear then travelled south to Malta. Renting lodgings situated three miles from the port of Valetta, he remained on the island for almost three months, before travelling on to Corfu, via Dalmatia and Montenegro.


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Edward Lear, Ascalon, Palestine

Edward Lear, Ascalon, Palestine.
Watercolour over pencil, heightened with touches of bodycolour; signed with monogram lower right. 105 by 205 mm.

John, Lord D’Ayton (1922-2003);
thence by descent to the present owners.

The sculptor Thomas Woolner (1825-1892) believed that Lear’s Holy Land drawings were ‘the most beautiful things he has ever done…not only for the mystery and history attached to the places themselves but also for the excessive fineness, tenderness and beauty of the art displayed in them.’1
Lear visited Palestine after leaving Cairo in the spring of 1867. He spent several days sketching at Memphis before travelling on to Jerusalem. On the way he stopped at Ascalon, where he executed the present work.

1. V. Noakes, Edward Lear 1812-1888, London 1985, p. 112.


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Edward Lear, The River Nile at Abou Seir, the Second Cataract (1867)

Edward Lear, The River Nile at Abou Seir, the Second Cataract, Egypt.
Pen and brown and grey ink with watercolour over pencil, heightened with white on buff-coloured paper; inscribed in ink and in pencil, lower left: Abou Seir / 2d Cataract / 9-9.30. AM. / Feby 4.1867, numbered, lower right: (341), and further inscribed with colour notes. 280 by 535 mm.

With Spink’s, London;
by whom sold to John, Lord D’Ayton (1922-2003);
thence by descent to the present owners.

London, Sotheby’s, Edward Lear, An Exhibition of Works by Edward Lear from the D’Ayton International Collection, assembled by John D’Ayton, 2004, no. 21.

In 1854 Lear had travelled up the Nile as far as Philae, but in 1867 he decided to explore further south and to make drawings of the Upper Nile and Nubia, as far as the Second Cataract. All the way up the Nile he was busy sketching, making new drawings of Philae and Denderah and many other places he had visited thirteen years earlier, but it was the new country above the First Cataract which was of greatest interest. He informed Lady Waldegrave by letter that the Nubian desert was ‘a sad, stern, uncompromising landscape, dark ashy purple lines of hills, piles of granite rocks, fringes of palm, and ever and anon astonishing ruins of the oldest temples’.1 The great expanses of sand and long lines of hills were a complete contrast to the lush green landscape of the First Cataract, but Lear was amazed by the harsh beauty of the landscape and delighted by the magnificence of the temples, particularly Abou Simbel which he reached on 8th February. By early March, Lear had returned to Cairo.

1. V. Noakes, Edward Lear Selected Letters, Oxford 1988, p. 216.


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Edward Lear, Baalbek, Lebanon (1858 / 1862)

Edward Lear, Baalbek, Lebanon.
Watercolour over pencil heightened with touches of bodycolour; signed with monogram and dated twice, lower left: 1858 / 1862. 180 by 370 mm.

Mrs Ashton;
Miss Lupton, Leeds;
thence by family descent, until 1992;
with Agnew’s, London, until 1995;
by whom sold to John, Lord D’Ayton (1922-2003);
thence by descent to the present owners.

London, Sotheby’s, Edward Lear, An Exhibition of Works by Edward Lear from the D’Ayton International Collection, assembled by John D’Ayton, 2004, no. 15.

On his way back from Egypt in the Spring of 1858 Lear spent several days by the Dead Sea and in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem before catching the boat from Jaffa to Beirut. From there he made an expedition into Lebanon, stopping at Damascus and, on the 23rd May, the ruins of Baalbek. Lear was not in good spirits when he arrived as the site was crowded with English travellers. He also complained of ‘a ropedancer from Cairo – with consequent attendant crowds – and a village full of tiresome begging impical Heliopolitans’.1 As a result of these irritations he was not able to fully appreciate his surroundings and wrote: ‘I can by no means endorse the enthusiasm of travellers regarding those very grand ruins. Their immense size, their proportions, – the inimitable labour and exquisite workmanship of their sculptured details, none can fail to be struck with, nor to delight in contemplating. But all the florid ornaments of architecture cannot fill up the place of simplicity, nor to me is it possible to see hideous forms of Saracentic walls around and mixed with such remains as those of Baalbec without a feeling of confused dislike of the whole scene – so incomplete and so unimpressive’.2

1. Ed. Lady Strachey, Letters of Edward Lear…to Chichester Fortescue…and Frances, Countess Waldegrave, London 1907, p. 109.
2. Ed. Lady Strachey, Letters of Edward Lear…to Chichester Fortescue…and Frances, Countess Waldegrave, London 1907, p. 109.


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Edward Lear, The Gorge at Wady Barada, Lebanon (1858)

Edward Lear, The Gorge at Wady Barada, Lebanon.
Pen and brown ink and watercolour over pencil, on grey paper; inscribed, lower right: Suk Wady Barada / 25 May 1858 / (215), and further inscribed with colour notes. 365 by 525 mm.

Sir Wyndham Dunstan (1861-1949);
John, Lord D’Ayton (1922-2003);
thence by descent to the present owners.

London, Agnew’s, 100th Annual Exhibition of Watercolours and Drawings, 1973, no. 155;
London, Sotheby’s, Edward Lear, An Exhibition of Works by Edward Lear from the D’Ayton International Collection, assembled by John D’Ayton, 2004, no. 16.

On 23rd May 1858, whilst spending time at Baalbek during his tour of the interior of Lebanon, Lear visited the gorge at Suk Wady Barada and made the present drawingAt the end of the month he left Baalbek and travelled to Damascus. The journey took only a day and, in a letter to his friend Lady Waldegrave, he expressed regret at not being able to spend longer over it: ‘The day’s journey thence half way over Anti Lebanon, and the following journey down hither would be of great interest could more time be spent on the way’.1 He spent only a few days in Damascus, delighting in the ‘glittering city’,2 before leaving for Corfu.

1. V. Noakes, Edward Lear Selected Letters, Oxford 1988, p. 159.
2. V. Noakes, Edward Lear Selected Letters, Oxford 1988, p. 159.


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Edward Lear, Gebel Serbal (1849)

Edward Lear, Gebel Serbal, Egypt.
Pen and brown ink and watercolour over pencil; inscribed, lower right: Gebel Serbal / 30 Jany.1849 / 1 P.M., numbered, lower left: 179., and further inscribed with colour notes.  130 by 225 mm.

Sale, London, Sotheby’s, 16 July 1987, lot 205;
with Spink’s, London, by 1991;
by whom sold to John, Lord D’Ayton (1922-2003);
thence by descent to the present owners.

London, Sotheby’s, Edward Lear, An Exhibition of Works by Edward Lear from the D’Ayton International Collection, assembled by John D’Ayton, 2004, no. 17.

Lear made his first visit to Egypt in January 1849 and spent a week in Cairo before setting off on an expedition to Mount Sinai. He was accompanied by his friend John Cross, and together they travelled by camel along the overland route from Cairo to Suez. From there they followed the west coast of the Sinai Peninsula before turning inland towards the mountains. On the 20th January Lear caught his first glimpse of Gebel Serbal and recorded ‘the magnificence of the mountains…and…the great Gebel Serbal, which some supposed Mt. Sinai for no good reason that I can find’.1 On this occasion, however, Lear did not stop to sketch the mountains and instead, the party continued towards Mount Sinai. They reached St. Catherine’s Monastery on the 27th and spent three days there before Lear caught a cold and decided to turn back, leaving his friend to continue on to Palestine without him. He left on the 30th and began his return journey northwards, passing Gebel Serbal on the way and making the present drawing. By the time he reached Suez he had caught a fever and spent some time recovering before travelling back to Cairo and then on to Malta.

1. Ed. V. Noakes, Edward Lear Selected Letters, Oxford 1988, p. 104.

Also see.


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Edward Lear, Nubians at the First Cataract on the Nile at Philae (1867)

Edward Lear, Nubians at the First Cataract on the Nile at Philae, Egypt.
Pen and grey ink and watercolour over pencil; inscribed in ink and pencil, lower left: Cataract 1st / 11. A.M. / Jany 30. 1867, further inscribed, lower centre: Nubians mostly white, some pale blue and lower right: A Suleiman (267), also inscribed with colour notes. 170 by 250 mm.

With Spink’s, London;
sale, London, Sotheby’s, 9 March 1989, lot 157,
bt. John, Lord D’Ayton (1922-2003);
thence by descent to the present owners

Lear first visited the Nile in 1854, but the present study dates from his second trip to the great river in the winter of 1866-1867. He was in the company of his Canadian cousin, Archie Jones, whom he met at Luxor and travelled with to Esneh, Edfu and then Philae, which they reached at the end of January 1867. Unfortunately, Archie was a difficult travelling companion and Lear found himself irritated by his lack of enthusiasm for the temples and habit of whistling in the evenings.  Furthermore, Archie ‘finished Philae in three hours, which Lear found sorrowfully unbelievable’1

1. V. Noakes, Edward Lear Selected Letters, Oxford 1988, p. 216.


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Edward Lear, The Grand Canal looking towards the Rialto Bridge, Venice (1865)

Edward Lear, The Grand Canal looking towards the Rialto Bridge, Venice.
Pen and brown ink and watercolor over pencil; dated lower right: 13 November 1865 (, extensively inscribed with the artist’s color notes. 352 by 504 mm; 13 7/8 by 19 7/8 in.

The Charles & Barbara Robertson Collection,
their sale, London, Sotheby’s, 16 December 2002, lot 72,
where acquired by the present owner.

The present watercolor was drawn during Lear’s second trip to Venice in 1865. He first visited the city in 1857 and was not particularly impressed. In a letter to his sister, Ann, he complained greatly of the ‘stinking canals’ and revealed that ‘Cooke’s and Canalette’s [sic] pictures please me far better than the actual appearance of the city.’1His return in 1865 was prompted by a commission from Lady Waldegrave to make an oil painting. During this trip he was far more impressed, particularly by the architecture and abundance of color. On 13th November, the day he drew the present watercolor, he rose early, ‘had a cup of cafe noir in the hotel – and then got a gondola for the day. First drew S(anta)-M(aria) de S(alute) by [the] Doge’s Palace – then from the Iron Bridge… but it was very cold.’2 The cold weather also brought with it a number of days of bright sunshine which reflected off the water in the canals and changed the character of the city, causing Lear to exclaim ‘anything so indescribably beautiful as the colour [sic] of the place I never saw’.3
This watercolor was once owned by Charles and Barbara Robertson who married in 1935. They were both heirs to confectionary fortunes. He was the great-grandson of James Robertson, the Scottish founder of the jam firm and she was descended from Dr Joseph Fry, who is credited with selling the world’s first chocolate bar in 1847.

1. V. Noakes, Edward Lear, London, 1985, p. 152
2. Ibid, p. 116
3. Ibid, p. 116

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An Edward Lear Alphabet, a Story and a Letter in Italian

The British Library website has published the manuscript of Edward Lear’s History of the Seven Families of Lake Pipple-Popple, which also contains a full Nonsense alphabet and another version of “High diddle diddle.”

Add MS 47462: ‘Written & illustrated for Lady Charlotte [Mary] & the Hon bles [William] Hugh [Spencer] & [William] Reginald Wentworth- Fitzwilliam’ [children of William, 6th Earl Fitzwilliam]; Nice, Feb. 1865.

Sotheby’s have auctioned a collection of letter from Edward Lear to William Holman Hunt which includes a letter, in Italian and with a self-caricature, to Wilhelm Marstrand. Unfortunately, only the last two pages are available in the lot page, and they did not answer my request of further information, so here is the translation of the part I can read:

… better-natured and brighter [person] you ever met. He has been in Jerusalem and Plaestine, and his works — (though he is young,) are very well known here.
I am sure you will assist him well so that he can see your city’s paintings and sculptures.
Plese send me a letter one of these days. I am now going to Florence — for 3 mmonths — and will be back in London next September. After that I do not really know where I’ll be moving to_ — perhaps again to Palestine — perhaps to India.
Nothing now keeps me bound to any place since my deaar sister’s recent death.
I hope your wife and child are well.
Goodbye my friend.
Yours always affectionately,
Odoardo Lear.
Would you like to see what I am like now?

Here is the lot description:

Fine sequence of autograph letters signed to William Holman Hunt

comprising 12 autograph letters signed to William Holman Hunt, a fragment of an autograph letter to Hunt and one autograph letter signed WITH A SELF-PORTRAIT to Wilhelm Marstrand, 48 pages excluding several integral address labels, various sizes, locations including 15 Stratford Place, Corfu and Villa Tennyson Sanremo, 1 June 1853 to 31 May 1885


Edward Lear first met Holman Hunt in 1852 when Lear was aged 40 and Holman Hunt was 25. It was Holman Hunt who was the established artist and Lear who was the artistically uneducated junior. The friendship between the two men would last over three decades until Lear’s death in 1888 with Lear addressing the younger man as “my dear Daddy” or “my dear old Daddy”. Their correspondence is scattered between numerous libraries including the British Library, the John Rylands Library (University of Manchester), the Getty Institute, the Houghton Library (University of Harvard) and the Huntington Library. The current letters are from a private collection: a descendant of Edward Lear’s sister, Sarah Street.

The letters discuss many aspects of Lear’s art and views on art. An early letter describes the trials of painting landscapes with live animals (“…I went down to Berkhamstead … but I could not manage the sheep at all. There were very few (10) in a larger paddock – and they ran about like cockroaches. When I had a man to hold them, they kicked up such a row… …but I remember your perseverance, and benefit thereby. I shall buy a sheep and draw all his mussels and boans and have a skellington set up…”) and, from 1855, there is Lear’s insight into the hanging of John Everett Millais’ work at the Royal Academy (“…Millais’ wonderful work was hung so as to do the worst for it. But our friend saw it, and the row and hullabullou he made was stupendous! He forced the three to move it, threatening to resign instantly if they didn’t. No such scene ever was known and you may imagine that Uncle John was not over placid. My opinion of his picture is this – that it is one of the most surprising works of genius in every way…”) There are frequent notes about negotiations over the selling price of his own art (“…if it sells I shall really begin to look upon you as a sort of good genius: and if it don’t I shall equally regard your good nature with the feelings it rationally calls forth…”) and statements about current work (“…I …have since returned to my Swiss Matterhorn picture, which will astonish the world, inasmuch as I manipulated the grass green and the snow white…”)

Given that Holman Hunt was Lear’s artistic mentor, there are numerous thoughts from Lear about his own artistic creed (“…It seems to me that my ‘Mission’… is to portray many places. You did a great deal for me in painting, and much more may yet have to come out of me – yet it seems to me that to aim at what requires long application and tax of eyesight is not my duty. And, after all, our talents are not all similar or equal… …You know my inaptness and awkwardness in all outdoor manipulatory artwork: moreover my temper is more irritable and my thumbs stiffer and my eyes worse than of old.”) There are also frequent concerns about his own artistic ability (“…I worry worry worry about this picture. There is so much of it so sloshy. I don’t know what you will say. Yet the whole scene is in reality one of the loveliest on earth, and I don’t know how it is, I have got it too dark and heavy, for with whatever deep effect of light and dark you see olives, there is always a distinct persuasion of their light foliage and wonderful transparency. Then, the foreground changes weekly here – new sorts of vegetation coming out. The real time of the picture is one hour before sunset at the end of February or maybe of March. Then the mountains are covered with snow, the olives have not got their fresh green leaves, and the ground is covered with moss, short grass and little herbs, anemones and the first Asphodel flowers. Also there is water below the olive trees in the valley…”) and there are numerous expressions of self-doubt (“O dear dear dear! – the more I see of nature the more sure I am that one Edward Lear should never have attempted to represent her unless as a painter of bees, blackheadlers and blutterflies. Yet I cannot but know that there is a vein of poetry within me that ought to have come out – though I begin to doubt if it ever will…”)

The letters reveal that Lear found Holman Hunt a receptive confidant and this allowed him to assess his own personality (“Perhaps the irritable nature of my temperament, and my unsettled early life make me more susceptible to what recovers me here – isolation and loneliness, and sometimes drives me half crazy with vexation. Really, when anyone tells me, as you do, your own inward thoughts and feelings, it flashes across me that after all I am a human being, notwithstanding much of the past year and a half has almost made me come to think otherwise…”) There are also examples of Lear’s conjectural thoughts on other’s reception of his ideas (“…I have no doubt Ruskin was disgusted at my pertness in observing that an accurate drawing of Chaucer’s left whisker or right ear, however wonderful in itself as a praiseworthy truthful copy, would not be so valuable as a less finished yet authentic picture of Chaucer’s face…”)

Lear first met Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1851 and there are numerous references to the poet (“The Poet is highly disgusted by building. He is at Alum bay – 300 houses and a railway, and a Monster Hotel.”) Lear tells us about Tennyson reciting verse (“Alfred Tennyson has just read us his new poem – it is called Maud and is most astonishing. One part, beginning ‘oh that t’was possible to be’ is enough to make you stand on your head. There are other small poems also, so as to make a whole volume…”) and his reports frequently provide Lear’s own opinions, such as appropriate subjects for poetry (“I have been down twice to A. Tennyson’s – the first time the party was pleasant… Yesterday I went again… when there was only Palgrave. Palgrave does not talk enough… AT read his ‘dying farmer’ which however remarkable as a curiously accurate portraiture of a queer subject, is by no means a pleasing poem to me. That men play the fool in the face of death and a Creator is no new fact – but I doubt its being an agreeable one for poetry. However, perhaps I am over fastidious…”)

Given Lear’s precarious health there are many, many statements about his condition, ranging from a simple cold (“…I had to blow my nose for eight days without stopping and had to use a tablecloth instead of a pocket handkerchief…”) to more serious issues (“I would have you to know that I do not walk in these days, but only ‘doddle’ – and that I can’t get into or out of a carriage without help: and moreover, that having already had some falls and fits, I dare not any longer go about alone. At 74 such changes must be expected…”) There is also an example of Lear confiding morbid thoughts (“…There are hours when I would rather life even abruptly ended… But… I know too well that one must persevere to the end – or ought so to do…”)

The correspondence provides numerous domestic details, intended and actual travel plans, discussions about friends, the state of Lear’s finances (“…I am in a pickle for tin…” and “…I am frightfully in debt and must sell to get rid of something or other to set me straight…”) and a vast range of additional topic, such as Lear’s dislike of the English climate (“One thing is perfectly certain, that I never can live wholly in England – never mine to winter there…”) or strict instructions about the Italian Post (“…Please write to me now and then: Poste Restante Florence (M.M. Edward Lear) will find me. Don’t put ‘Esq’ or one never gets the letter, because they believe one’s name is Esq and stick the document in letter E for ever…”)

The letters are generally written with Lear’s sense of fun and include some wonderfully inventive descriptions (“You see by the disjointed manner in which I write that I am constantly interrupted, and that instead of going on like a railroad I am like the engine a hopping off the rails”) together with deliberate mis-spellings (“Oly City” and “…Shall you disown your hoffspring…” for example). In discussing his illustrations for Tennyson’s poetry, Lear describes them in terms of natural history (“…of the 200 AT illustrations, all the ‘Eggs’ (or first effects) are done; and a great many of the 2nd lot (or ‘caterpillars’) and now 20 of the ‘chrysalisses’ or last change before the final butterfly – though what that may be is even yet a mystery…”)

The letter – written in Italian – to the Danish painter and illustrator Nicolai Wilhelm Marstrand (1810-1873) was given to Holman Hunt to serve as an introduction when Holman Hunt visited. Lear had described the Danish painter to Holman Hunt as “one of my most intimate companions, and I think you cannot fail to like him”. The meeting presumably never happened, however. Lear concludes his letter to Marstrand with a question (“Volete veder il mio ritratto?”) and then provides a typical humorous self-portrait.

In her paper on Lear and Holman Hunt (see Rivista di studi vittoriani, 2014, pp. 79-99), Sara Lodge concludes noting that “Edward Lear and William Holman Hunt, in death as in life, make an odd couple: the former apparently so mercurial, the latter so dogged in his approach to art. But their letters reveal sympathies and dialogue that may make us reappraise the scope and modernity of their intellectual and cultural work and how they reinvent the artistic father/son relationship to transform the burdensome anxiety of influence into a mutually constructive, performative correspondence”. Lear’s own statement, found in the present series of letters, is significant in noting “…You see Daddy you took an awful load of responsibility on yourself when you adopted me as your son…”


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