EDWARD LEAR, the artist, author of Journals of a Landscape Painter in various out-of-the-way countries, and of the delightful Books of Nonsense, which have amused successive generations of children, died on Sunday, January 29, at San Remo, where he had lived for twenty years. Few names could evoke a wider expression of passing regret at their appearance in the obituary column, for until his health began to fail him he was known to an immense and almost a cosmopolitan circle of acquaintance, and popular wherever he was known. Fewer still could call up in the minds of intimate friends a deeper and more enduring feeling of sorrow for personal loss, mingled with the pleasantest of memories; for it was impossible to know him thoroughly and not to love him. London, Rome, the Mediterranean countries generally, Ceylon and India, are still all dotted with survivors among his generation who will mourn for him affectionately, although his latter years have been spent in comparatively close retirement. He was a man of striking nobility of nature, fearless, independent, energetic, given to forming for himself strong opinions, often hastily, sometimes bitterly; not always strong or sound in judgment, but always seeking after truth in every matter, and following it as he understood it in scorn of consequence; utterly unselfish, devoted to his friends, generous even to extravagance towards any one who had ever been connected with his fortunes or his travels; playful, lighthearted, witty, and humorous, but not without those occasional fits of black depression and nervous irritability to which such temperaments are liable.
Great and varied as the merits of his pictures are, Lear hardly succeeded in achieving any great popularity as a landscape painter. His work was frequently done on private commission, and he rarely sent in pictures for the Academy or other exhibitions. His larger and more highly finished landscapes were unequal in technical perfection; sometimes harsh or cold in colour, or stiff in composition; sometimes full of imagination, at others literal and prosaic; but always impressive reproductions of interesting or peculiar scenery. In later years he used in conversation to qualify himself as a “topographical artist”; and the definition was true, though not exhaustive. He had an intuitive and a perfectly trained eye for the character and beauty of distant mountain lines, the solemnity of rocky gorges, the majesty of a single mountain rising from a base of plain or sea; and he was equally exact in rendering the true forms of the middle distances and the specialities of foreground detail belonging to the various lands through which he had wandered as a sketcher. Some of his pictures show a mastery which has rarely been equalled over the difficulties of painting an immense plain as seen from a height, reaching straight away from the eye of the spectator until it is lost in a dim horizon. Sir Roderick Murchison used to say that he always understood the geological peculiarities of a country he had only studied in Lear’s sketches. The compliment was thoroughly justified; and it is not every landscape painter to whom it could honestly be paid.
The history of Lear’s choice of a career was a curious one. He was the youngest of twenty-one children, and, through a family mischance, was thrown entirely on the limited resources of an elderly sister at a very early age. As a boy he had always dabbled in colours for his own amusement, and had been given to poring over the ordinary boys’ books upon natural history. It occurred to him to try and turn his infant talents to account; and he painted upon cardboard a couple of birds in the style which the older among us remember as having been called Oriental tinting,# took them to a small shop, and sold them for fourpence. The kindness of friends, to whom he was ever grateful, gave him the opportunity of more serious and more remunerative study, and he became a patient and accurate zoological draughtsman. Many of the birds in the earlier volumes of Gould’s magnificent folios were drawn for him by Lear. A few years back there were eagles alive in the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park to which Lear could point as old familiar friends that he had drawn laboriously from claw to beak fifty years before. He united with this kind of work the more unpleasant occupation of drawing the curiosities of disease or deformity in hospitals. One day, as he was busily intent on the portrait of a bird in the Zoological Gardens, an old gentleman came and looked over his shoulder, entered into conversation, and finally said to him, “You must come and draw my birds at Knowsley.” Lear did not know where Knowsley was, or what it meant; but the old gentleman was the thirteenth Earl of Derby. The successive Earls of Derby have been among Lear’s kindest and most generous patrons. He went to Knowsley, and the drawings in the Knowsley Menagerie (now a rare and highly-prized work among book collectors) are by Lear’s hand. At Knowsley he became a permanent favourite; and it was there that he composed in prolific succession his charming and wonderful series of utterly nonsensical rhymes and drawings. Lear had already begun seriously to study landscape. When English winters began to threaten his health, Lord Derby started a subscription which enabled him to go to Rome as a student and artist, and no doubt gave him recommendations among Anglo-Roman society which laid the foundations of a numerous clientele. It was in the Roman summers that Lear first began to exercise the taste for pictorial wandering which grew into a habit and a passion, to fill vivid and copious notebooks as he went, and to illustrate them by spirited and accurate drawings; and his first volume of Illustrated Excursions in Italy, published in 1846, is gratefully dedicated to his Knowsley patron.
Only those who have travelled with him could know what a delightful comrade he was to men whose tastes ran more or less, parallel to his own. It was not everybody who could travel with him; for he was so irrepressibly anxious not to lose a moment of the time at his disposal for gathering into his garners the beauty and interest of the lands over which he journeyed that he was careless of comfort and health. Calabria, Sicily, the Desert of Sinai, Egypt and Nubia, Greece and Albania, Palestine, Syria, Athos, Candia, Montenegro, Zagóri (who knows now where Zagóri is, or was?), were as thoroughly explored and sketched by him as the more civilized localities of Malta, Corsica, and Corfu. He read insatiably before starting all the recognized guidebooks and histories of the country he intended to draw; and his published itineraries are marked by great strength and literary interest quite irrespectively of the illustrations. And he had his reward. It is not any ordinary journalist and sketcher who could have compelled from Tennyson such a tribute as lines “To E. L. on his Travels in Greece”:—
Illyrian woodlands, echoing falls
Of water, sheets of summer glass,
The long divine Peneïan 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.
Lear was a man to whom, as to Tennyson’s Ulysses,
All experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world.
After settling at San Remo, and when he was nearly sixty years old, he determined to visit India and Ceylon. He started once and failed, being taken so ill at Suez that he was obliged to return. The next year he succeeded, and brought away some thousands of drawings of the most striking views from all three Presidencies and from the tropical island. His appetite for travel continued to grow with what it fed upon; and, although he hated a long sea-voyage, he used seriously to contemplate as possible a visit to relations in New Zealand. It may safely, however, be averred that no considerations would have tempted him to visit the Arctic regions.
A hard-working life, chequered by the odd adventures which happen to the odd and the adventurous and pass over the commonplace; a career, brightened by the high appreciation of unimpeachable critics; lightened, till of late, by the pleasant society and good wishes of innumerable friends; saddened by the growing pressure of ill health and solitude; cheered by his constant trust in the love and sympathy of those who knew him best, however far away; such was the life of Edward Lear.
The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art. Volume 65, no. 1684, 4 February 1888, pp. 130-131.
# Oriental tinting was a painting technique much in vogue in England in the 1820s and 1830s. As W. Morgan, a drawing master in Torquay, explained in his 1830 work The Art of Oriental Tinting, it was a ‘method of applying watercolour which gives [the drawings] a softness and brilliancy almost surpassing nature in the effect produced.’ The method involved transferring a drawing with oriental [tracing] paper to ivory paper, velvet, or other surface, and working up the colours to the desired brilliancy. Because the design was traced, it appealed to and was practiced by talented amateurs (Christie’s).