Edward Lear, Near Perivolia, Chania, Crete (1864)

Edward Lear, Near Perivolia, Chania, Crete.
Pencil, pen, ink and watercolour heightened with white. 370 × 540 mm. (14 ⅝ × 21 ¼ in.). Inscribed (in Greek) Perivolia. Chania and dated 11 A.M. 23 April 1864 and numbered (35).

The location of this remarkable watercolour had been unknown until its recent rediscovery. It is recorded as no. 30 – Near Perivolia – 11 a.m. in the list of Cretan drawings made by Lear’s friend and executor, Frank Lushington, now held by the Yale Center for British Art at Yale n the Edward Lear archive.

Lear reached Crete on 11th April 1864, a week after leaving Corfu, his final departure from his island home for the past nine years, brought by the end of British rule and the cession of the Ionian islands to Greece. The voyage via Athens to Crete was uncomfortable which cannot have helped his state of mind, already somewhat depressed by the change of circumstances. Lear recorded each day’s events in his journal, now in the Houghton Library, Harvard.

On 23rd April Lear wrote: “Rose at five. Very lovely and George and I off at six; I in great pain from some unknown cause in left foot – left wrist also very painful. Out of spirits. Hobbled to the streets by the gate and drew a little, so that now I can make a drawing of it. Then by the paved Turkish road, drawing a picturesque tomb, towards the Perivolia villages. Drew below a large olive – at this part of the plain there are really fine trees – the beautiful scene I had marked on the [18th]: foreground a great waving pale green corn meadow, then large olives deep gray beneath the green down-like hills, topped by the snow range. Beyond this, at nine, we threaded through ruined villages – what a state they are in! – hardly seeing a soul, to the west of the plain; but then, missing our way, had to work back till we reached the huge olive boles, whence all the plain is seen, a blaze of colour; the yellow-green of the plain and the frittery bright lemon groves, the darker orange, gray olive, red cliffs, lilac hills and blue sea! Nightingales delighted by singing, orioles and hoopoes by showing themselves…….. Certainly this corner of the plain of Hanià is wonderfully lovely and the lemon groves are positively amazing.”

The present watercolour is of the scene described above, reflecting the bright colouring Lear records. His travels through Crete covered the centre and west of the island, visiting the relatively few known classical sites, which did not at that time include Knossos and Phaestos, yet to be rediscovered. He finally departed Chania on 31st May. Alive to the political problems posed by the Turkish rule and of a population divided between a Greek majority and a mixture of other races, he kept himself at a distance from this as he had in earlier excursions, for instance in Calabria in 1847.

James Mackinnon.

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