Edward Lear, Sunset on the Nile, above Aswan.
Signed with monogram (lower left); bears exhibition label and inscribed, signed and dated ‘On the Nile/Edward Lear/1871’ (verso). Oil on canvas. 24 x 47cm (9 7/16 x 18 1/2in).
Purchased directly from the artist in 1871 by Ernest Noel (1831-1931), M.P. for Dumfries Burghs 1874 to 1886.
Audrey Baillie Theron (neé Noel).
Jacqueline Marie Malcolm (neé Theron).
Thence by direct descent to the current owner.
Ernest Noel befriended Edward Lear when they were both passengers on a journey down the Nile in Egypt. It is thought Noel commissioned the current lot on the basis of sketches he had watched Lear execute during the voyage.
Lear made his first trip to Egypt in 1849. He expressed his excitement about the upcoming trip in a letter to another close friend, Lord Fortescue:
“the contemplation of Egypt must fill the mind, the artistic mind I mean, with great food for the rumination of long years” (12 February 1848 quoted in ed. Lady Strachey, The Letters of Edward Lear, 1907, pp.8-9).
The trip did not disappoint, and Lear was deeply struck by the powerful colours and light of Egypt. Indeed, he enjoyed the country so much that he made another trip during the winter of 1853-4, arriving in Cairo on the 18th December 1853. He had planned to travel around Egypt with the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt and initially intended to wait for his friend in the capital city before commencing his travels. However, he developed a fever and as Cairo was damp he decided that he would leave at once for Upper Egypt and the Nile.
Lear’s letters from this trip to his sister Ann are full of delight about his travels up the Nile; he described the river as “magnificent…with endless villages – hundreds & hundreds on its banks, all fringed with palms, & reflected in the water; – the usual accompaniments of buffaloes, camels etc. abound, but the multitude of birds it is utterly impossible to describe, – geese, pelicans, plovers, eagles, hawks, cranes, herons, hoopoes, doves, pigeons, king fishers & many others. The most beautiful feature is the number of boats which look like giant moths, – & sometimes there is a fleet of 20 or 30 in sight at once.” (Lear to Ann, 4th January 1854, as quoted in Noakes, 1968, p.122).
As with all his travels, he captured his impressions in detailed annotated drawings and watercolours, drawn en plein air, which he used as reference for his larger scale studio oils on canvas, such as the present lot, upon his return to England:
“I have done very little in oils, as the colours dry fast, & the sand injures them; watercolours are also difficult to use. But I have made a great many outlines.” (the artist, as quoted in Noakes 1991, p.65).
Thirteen years later, Lear made his second trip up the Nile and his third and last visit to Egypt in December 1866 until March 1867. Once again it was Egypt’s rich colours that Lear found most remarkable, consequently filling his diary with details of their extraordinary brilliance and variety. The present painting is most likely worked up from sketches made during that final visit, demonstrating the extent to which Lear was captivated by the Nile’s astonishing scenery. He realised that his watercolour sketches from his previous trips had, by their very nature, failed to capture the intensity of colour: “It seems to me, my former drawings were not severe enough…” (the artist, as quoted in Noakes 1991, p.65).
“It will be difficult to work out anything like the sentiment – of the infinite detail of rocks!…the upper side light, the lower so dark. In the foreground – the pale rock & gritty sand is blazing bright – while all below is a dark depth. The farthest range of hills is sandy pale, with grey from crowds of rocks.”
However, Lear seemed to relish these challenges: “In no place it seems to me, can the variety & simplicity of colours be so well studied as in Egypt; in no place are the various beauties of shadow more observable, or more interminably numerous. Every mud bank is a picture, every palm – every incident of peasant life” (Edward Lear, Diary, 25th February 1867).
The present lot demonstrates Lear’s master use of glazes to capture the brilliant light he described in his journal and letters. Three of Lear’s works titled On the Nile were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1871.