Edward Lear, Kom Ombo

Edward Lear, Kom Ombo, Egypt.
Signed with monogram (lower left); stamped with the collector stamp of Earl Spencer (lower right). Watercolour, 17.6 x 37.8cm (6 15/16 x 14 7/8in).

Edward John Spencer, 8th Earl Spencer Collection, UK (Frits Lugt L.2341a).
Max Harari Collection, UK (acquired from the above).
Thence by descent.

I strongly long to go to Egypt….I am quite crazy about Memphis and On & Isis & crocodiles… the contemplation of Egypt must fill the mind… with great food for the rumination of long years.
(Edward Lear, letter to Chichester Fortescue, 1848)

Lear’s fascination with Egypt led him to make three visits during his lifetime; the first, in January 1849, was a week-long stay, exploring Cairo and the Pyramids before carrying on towards Sinai. His second visit came at the end of 1853, with his first trip down the Nile in early 1854, travelling as far south as Philae. He returned in December 1866, staying for three months, and making a second trip on the Nile in January 1867, reaching Wadi Halfa.

Lear’s letters reveal his joy in capturing the life and landscape of Egypt: ‘In no place … 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’. But Lear was also frustrated in his efforts, critical of his earlier work, noting ‘It seems to me, my former drawings were not severe enough: & certainly I never made enough of the grayness of local colour, nor of the atmosphere’1.

When back in his studio, Lear worked his colour sketches into finished compositions, producing over 40 oils of Egyptian subjects – including Royal Academy submissions in 1856 and 1871 – as well as numerous watercolours. The high finish and lack of annotation and numbering on the present lot and lots 74, 75 and 76 suggests that these works may have been produced in his studio, rather than having been drawn on the spot.

The Temple of Kom Ombo lies 30 miles north of Aswan, its location a crossroads between the caravan route from Nubia and the trails to the gold mines in the eastern desert areas. Constructed during the Ptolemaic dynasty, with later additions made during the Roman period, the temple’s unique double design was intended for the devotion of two sets of gods.

Lear first visited Kom Ombo in 27 January 1854, during his first Nile trip (see Christie’s, London, 12 July 1994, lot 122), stopping again on his return on 10 February: a very similar composition to the present lot is in the collection of Harvard University, Houghton Library, with the interesting colour note ‘The stones are/just like those below Winchelsea & Hastings’.

Lear also visited Kom Ombo on 20 February 1867, during his second Nile trip (see Christie’s, London, 5 July 2016, lot 128); inbetween these visits, he also produced an oil of Kom Ombo in 1856, working from watercolour sketches made in 1854, as was his practice.

See also Christie’s, South Kensington, 1 July 2004, lot 182 and 6 December 2012, lot 276 for further examples.

1 Quoted in Vivien Noakes, The Painter Edward Lear, Newton Abbot, 1991, passim.


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