Travels with Edward Lear

It’s hard to share the tastes of a collector
Travels with Edward Lear – National Gallery of Scotland

AS the author of such quaintly endearing Victorian-era “nonsense” as The Owl and the Pussycat and other such silly-but-enduring rhymes, you would expect a collection of artwork by Edward Lear to reflect a particularly skewed interpretation of the world.
But not this one, unfortunately – it�s about as traditional a series of watercolour landscapes as it�s possible to imagine.
In fact, Lear did illustrate the rhymes he created, but this display shows only one particular strain of his work.
It represents the tastes of Scottish historian and art collector Sir Stephen Runciman, who passed away in 2000, and whose Lear collection was subsequently accepted by the Government in lieu of inheritance tax and passed to the National Gallery.
So what we are left with, then, is a comprehensive – but not altogether high quality – catalogue of Lear�s trips overseas during the nineteenth century.
It�s easy to see how much inspiration Lear drew from such surroundings just by looking at his range of interests – as well as being a poet, a cartoonist, and a painter, Lear included musician and traveller among his preoccupations.
Judging by these works, then, it appears that Lear saw as part of his travelling remit an obligation to catalogue some of the places and sights he saw – not bad work if you can get it, considering many of the sun-kissed hillsides and beaches on show here. But Lear saw himself chiefly as a painter of oils, and it was these which he expected to be able to sell and live off.
Therefore, a lot of these watercolours are pen drawings, lightly coloured and with little scribbled notes on them as a reminder of topographical details when it came to painting the real thing.
A quote from Runciman, at one point, expresses the irony of what eventually happened, however, with collectors in the early twentieth century doing a brisk trade in Lear watercolours, and all but letting the oils stagnate. You can only assume they were getting them on the cheap, though, because there�s very little here to actually enthuse about, never mind get excited.
Of the 34 works which formed the bequest, 20 are on display. The first of these is also the first piece which Runciman bought, a half-formed sketch of Kinopiastes, Corfu. For sure, it gives a certain air of the locale, while the sketched topography is precise enough. It�s the half-finished element which grates – presumably only collectors could get excited about this because it�s a work in progress.
There are plenty others like it, like Potamos, Corfu and Metzovo. Again, they may have brought Runciman no end of enjoyment, but not to the casual observer.
A sketch of Mount Athos from near Niacoro, meanwhile, is described as “undoubtedly one of the most charming of all (Lear�s) watercolours from the Runciman collection” – presumably only to someone who�s charmed by a box of Ferrero Rocher and a bunch of daffodils, because this near-monochrome clump of trees is not a patch on Lear�s complete work.
The exhibition does also contain a handful of finished watercolours, and they really do have a certain charm. The individually-titled Suli, Marathon and Plains of Canea, Crete and Sparta are lovely, blending blue mountains, white sky and lush green grass to gorgeous effect.
If only the whole display had been like that – but then, there�s no accounting for the tastes of a collector. [DAVID POLLOCK] News | 13 January 2004

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