Edward Lear, The Plains of Bethany


Edward Lear, The Plains of Bethany.
Signed with monogram (lower left). Oil on canvas. 9 ½ x 18 3/8 in. (24.1 x 47.6 cm.)

Jerusalem, with its powerful biblical associations, was the goal of many artist-travellers to the Near East in the 19th Century. Edward Lear, aware of the particular veneration in which the city was held, wrote as early as 1848 of his desire to visit the Holy Land: ‘How I wish someone would pay my way to Palestine; I should like to see Jerusalem of all things’. After two earlier attempts had failed, his journey was eventually enabled by a commission from Lady Waldegrave, one of the most loyal of his patrons. He reached Jerusalem on 27 March 1858, and the next day, Palm Sunday, explored the country immediately outside the walls. The city was crowded with Easter pilgrims however, and he decided to continue his journey south to Petra.

The little village of Bethany lay on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives, reputedly the Biblical site of the Tomb of Lazarus, and is now the village of Al-Azariyeh. Lear wrote to Lady Waldegrave about his travels out of Jerusalem: ‘Every path leads you to a fresh thought: – this takes you to Bethany, lovely now as it ever must have been: quiet, still little nook of valley scenery. There is Rephaïm & you see the Philistines crowding over the great plain – Down that ravine you go to Jericho: from that point you see the Jordan and Gilead…I cannot conceive any place on Earth like Jerusalem for astonishing and yet unfailing mines of interest’ (27 May 1858, cited in Lady Strachey, Letters of Edward Lear, London, 1907, p. 107).

This painting, believed to have been executed in 1879, is based on a watercolour sold in these Rooms on 17 November 1992 (lot 104), which is inscribed ‘Bethany/Edward Lear: del. 1858.’ and is dedicated to ‘Miss Baring. Stratton Hall. Mitcheldever. Hants.’ It had passed down by descent to Thomas George Baring, 1st Earl of Northbrook. A larger version of the drawing, without the figures (12¾ x 20in. and inscribed ‘Bethany 25 of April./1858’), was sold in these Rooms on 10 July 1984 (lot 280) as having been in the collection of Franklin Lushington.

The painting is known to have been in the collection of James Parker who, for nearly fifty years, was Curator of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, having previously worked at the Louvre, Paris, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. He bequeathed it to Marvin Schwartz, Curator of Decorative Arts at the Brooklyn Museum, later consultant tat the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, who originated the weekly ‘Antiques’ column in The New York Times.

We are grateful to Briony Llewellyn for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.


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