Edward Lear, The Pyramids Road (or, have you got a million?)

Edward Lear, The Pyramids Road, Gizeh.
Signed with monogram and dated EL.1873 lower left. Oil on canvas. Unframed: 53 by 104cm., 21 by 41in.

Commissioned by Thomas George Baring, 1st Earl Northbrook before 1872
The Fine Art Society, by whom sold to a private collector
Their sale, Sotheby’s, London, 8-9 June 1993, lot 4
Purchased from the above by the present owner (a Distinguished American Collector)

Lady Strachey (ed.), Letters of Edward Lear, 1907, p. 318, nos. 272 or 273.
Briony Llewellyn, entry in Edward Lear, 1812-88, catalogue for the exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, 1985, p. 154, illustrated p. 39.
Gerard-Georges Lemaire, Orientalism: The Orient in Western Art, Paris, 2000, p. 135, mentioned.
Nicholas Tromans (ed.), The Lure of the East catalogue for the exhibition at Yale Centre for British Art in New Haven, Tate Britain in London, Suna and Inan Kirac Foundation Prera Museum in Istanbul and Sharjah Art Museum, 2008-2009, illustrated p. 106, fig. 88.

London, The Fine Art Society, The Travels of Edward Lear, 1983, no. 80.
London, Royal Academy, The Orientalists – Delacroix to Matisse. European Painters in North Africa and the Near East, 1984, no. 85.
Washington, National Gallery of Art, The Orientalists – Delacroix to Matisse. The Allure of North Africa and the Near East, 1984, no. 63.l
London, Royal Academy, Edward Lear, 1812-88, 1985, no. 61.
Edinburgh, The Fine Art Society, 1988.
Edinburgh, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Visions of the Ottoman Empire, 1994.
Washington, National Gallery of Art, The Victorians: British Painting in the Reign of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901, 1997, no. 44.

‘It is a highly original variation of the much-painted theme of the Pyramids. By taking a viewpoint at the end of the long avenue of thickly-foliaged acacia trees, planted in 1868, he created a startling composition.’ (Briony Llewellyn, Edward Lear, 1812-88, 1985, p. 154)

In 1848 Lear wrote to his friend Chichester Fortescue; ‘I long to go to Egypt for the next winter… I am quite crazy about Memphis & On & Isis & crocodiles & opthalmia & nubians… Seriously – the contemplation of Egypt must fill the mind, the artistic mind I mean, with great food for the rumination of years.’ (Letter of 12 February 1848, quoted in Vivien Noakes, Edward Lear, Selected Letters, 1988, p. 68). In January of the following year he reached Cairo and embarked on his first voyage to a country that was second only to Greece in his affections. He was correct that his visits to Egypt ruminated in his imagination for many years and led to the painting of some of his most remarkable works, The Pyramids Road, Gizeh being the most impressive and significant.

The Pyramids Road, Gizeh was painted in 1873, more than two decades after Lear’s first visit to Egypt. Sometime before February 1872 Lear was commissioned by Thomas George Baring, to paint what the artist referred to as ‘2 pictures of the Pirrybids’ (letter to Fortesque, 28 February 1872, quoted in Noakes, p. 237). The pair comprise the present work and the astonishingly empty view, The Pyramids of Ghizeh (Christie’s, London, 25 November 1988, lot 105). Lear had been introduced to Baring in Rome in 1848 and found him ‘an extremely luminous & amiable brick’. Baring, later 1st Earl of Northbrook, became, with Lord Carlingford, Lady Waldegrave and others, part of Lear’s faithful aristocratic circle of friends, on whose loyal patronage he depended. In 1871 Baring took up the post of Governor General for India, and invited Lear to make his exhausting tour of that sub-continent between 1873 and 1875.

Lear had not intended to visit Egypt in 1872 but whilst on his way to visit Baring in India, he spent a few days in Cairo that October. He had aborted his journey to India at Suez after he was injured in a bad fall and suffering from exhaustion and jangled nerves – a situation made worse by a chaotic scene involving his luggage – he turned back to Alexandria. He ventured on to Cairo, a city he knew relatively well, where he could take respite and regain his composure. He was happy to be back in the country he had visited four times before and delighted to find fresh inpiration. He made a visit to see the Pyramids Road, a long avenue of Acacia trees planted four years earlier in the European-style of wide tree-lined avenues to celebrate Empress Eugenie’s visit for the opening of the Suez Canal. To say that he was impressed would be an understatement and he wrote; ‘Nothing in all life is so amazingly interesting as this new road & avenue – literally all the way to the Pyramids… the effect of this causeway in the middle of wide waters is singular… & were one sure of quiet, there is much poetry in the scene, but it wants thought and arrangement.’ (entry in Lear’s diary, 13th & 14th October 1872, quoted in the Edward Lear catalogue to the Royal Academy Exhibition, p. 154). The following day he returned to the road and made a sketch – probably, the one formerly in the collection of Viscount Downe (fig. 1, sold in these rooms, 8 June 1993, lot 5) which was clearly the basis for the present, large oil. A pencil drawing of the composition (Houghton Library, Harvard University) is dated 14 October, the same day he wrote in his diary; ‘I drew again at the head of the great acacia avenue – but flies made the work impossible.’ Despite the insects, the heat and the annoyances of local people wanting to see what he was doing, he persevered and created a remarkable painting and, as Briony Llewellyn has pointed out; ‘Nothing of Lear’s irascibility is reflected in his serene painting.’

The human activity on the road is keenly observed and sensitively depicted; each figure group is a vignette of society – the young boy with a donkey who has stopped to talk to an older traveller at the side of the road, the groups of men who are conversing and perhaps sharing news from afar or simply making business-deals, and the two women riding mules who are covered entirely but for their eyes. The camels are essential to Lear’s paintings of Egypt and he liked them very much as animals but here they have the purpose of presenting haulage and transport, the commerce of the Egyptians which had made them wealthy for thousands of years. These elements are not casually inserted into the scene, they each take their place in this depiction of many hours of observation of those who came and went along the great dusty road.

The Pyramids Road, Gizeh is a scene that we might now regard as nostalgic or historic but in 1873 it depicted a very modern scene of Egyptian life. Some of Lear’s contemporaries, including William Holman-Hunt, complained that Cairo was only interesting for its ancient ruins and that the modern city was of no interest to them. However, Lear was also fascinated and inspired by the modern changes and among the sketches he made on this 1873 trip was a view of the canal at Suez, only relatively recently completed (fig. 2). He made the scene magnificent in scale with a vast expance of water receding into the distance. This same sense of the grandeur of modern engineering can be found in his depiction of the Pyramids Road, another new feat of modern construction. To have built a wide elevated causeway through the floodplain impressed Lear as much as the engineering that built the pyramids thousands of years before. He perhaps saw the two constructions as a continuing theme of human endeavour through the ages. The ancient majesty of the pyramids in the background is a counterpoint to the modern building of the road leading past them. The sense of great distance is wonderfully depicted as the arching tunnel of trees recedes to the radiant glow of the horizon, reminiscent of John Martin’s Biblical extravaganzas depicting Jacob’s Ladder or Moses’ parting of the sea. Perhaps it also represents the journey from the golden glory of the past to the present day and beyond and we, as witnesses to the spectacle, stand firmly at the centre of it as Lear himself did over a century and a half ago.

[It is estimated 700,000 to 1,000,000 GBP, the highest for  a Lear painting, I think! I’lkl keep an eye on this sale.]


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