Edward Lear, Mount Sinai (1853)

Edward Lear, Mount Sinai.
Inscribed, signed and dated MT. SINAI E. Lear 1853 lower right. Oil on canvas, circular. Unframed: 58.5cm., 23in. diameter. Framed: 69 by 69cm., 27¼ by 27¼in.

Bought from the artist by Thomas Gambier Parry.
Leger Galleries, London, 1970.
John Tillotson, by whom sold Christie’s, London, 21 June 1985, lot 17.
Sale: Sotheby’s, London, 30 March 1994, lot 179.
Purchased from the above by the present owner.

On the 6th January 1849 Lear arrived in Cairo to join his friend John Cross. Together they prepared for their planned itinerary through the Sinai, the Holy Land and Lebanon, buying ‘beds, carpets, pipes, eatables, etc.’, and for Lear ‘a capital hat lined with green and a double umbrella, and a green gauze veil, and an Arab cloak, and a thick Capote’ (letter to Ann Lear, 11th January 1849). On the 12th they left Cairo for Suez, travelling in style with a dragoman, Ibrahim, who was also a fine cook, and other servants. Lear was much amused by the camels which the party rode, ‘the most odious beasts… certainly uninteresting quadrupeds as to their social qualities’ (letter to Ann Lear, 16th January).

Their journey followed the Exodus, the route of the Israelites out of Egypt. Lear was aware of contemporary speculation regarding the exact path and the traditional identification of Mount Sinai as the spot where Moses received the Tablets, and discussed it in his letters, but his first sight of the mountain moved him greatly: ‘The 25th we crossed the high pass – El Hawy – & came to El Raha, the great plain which universal tradition has affixed as the site of the Israelite’s Camp, below the immense mountain – called Horeb or Sinai. The excessive & wonderful grandeur of the spot is not described… & the adaptation of the whole scene to that recorded in Scripture is equally astonishing… these mountains have from the earliest known authorities always been known as Sinai or Horeb. The convent – a Greek establishm[en]t was built in the 6th century’ (letter to Ann Lear, 1st February).

Lear stayed in the monastery of St Catherine, just visible in this oil on the right shoulder of the mountain, for three days of fine weather and made a number of drawings of the surroundings. Lady Strachey’s list of the principle works notes a view of Mount Sinai painted in 1849 (no. 79) for his travelling companion, the Reverend John Cross, and another in 1872 for C. Allanson Knight (no. 246). The present painting, bought by Thomas Gambier Parry, a friend and patron of Lear’s from the 1840s, seems Lear’s principle oil of the subject. A smaller variant of 1858 (private collection), also circular, was exhibited at the Royal Academy, Edward Lear 1812-88, 1985, no. 55.

Thomas Gambier Parry, J.P., D.L., (1816-1888) was an artist best remembered for his development of the Gambier Parry process of fresco painting which he used at Ely Cathedral, Gloucester Cathedral and the parish church at Highnam. He was also an avid art collector with a significant collection of early Italian paintings and objects now housed at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. One of his sons was Sir Hubert Parry, the composer.

The technical quality of Mount Sinai is superb. Lear had clearly taken great delight in conveying the imposing majesty of the sandstone mountain glowing in the desert heat but the boulders in the foreground are also painted with great care and sensitivity. There is the awesome vastness of the sand, the towering cliffs and massive solidity of rock contrasted with the men and animals dwarfed by their timeless surroundings. Tiny flicks of paint cleverly describe the forms of camels and riders receding into the distance amid the golden sea of sand. Even the monastery seems small in contrast to the natural rock around it. There is undoubtedly a spiritual message about Man’s place in the world and God’s place above it – the Christian God perhaps or Elagabal, the Syrian Sun-god (Lord of the Mountain). This is a serious and powerful painting but Lear was an artist and a poet whose sense of humour was famous and beneath the mount of Mount Sinai there is a sketch of a chicken – it is tempting to wonder whether he placed it there knowing that the buyer of his picture would be unaware of the bird’s presence.


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