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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Edward Lear, Moment to Moment

Building on the success of the AHRC Knowing Edward Lear project, Edward Lear, Moment to Moment will be the first exhibition solely devoted to Lear’s sketches and landscape drawings from across the whole span of his career. It will take place in Autumn 2021 at the IKON Gallery in Birmingham, an educational charity that works to encourage public engagement with art. The initiative will include a substantial exhibition catalogue, symposia, school visits, lectures, and workshops, and will also involve collaborations with HMP Grendon, Birmingham LGBT, and migrant and refugee organisations. IKON offers free entry to all and receives around 200,000 visitors each year. The show will draw on collections in the US, the UK, and beyond, and will include many items that have never before been shown in public.

One of the central aims of Edward Lear, Moment to Moment will be to explore the artist’s fascination with the creative process, including the very process through which his work comes into being (experimental methods of composition, successive drafts, doodlings, and written marginalia in the drawings and paintings). The show will offer a study of the momentary—the thrilling, haunting evanescence of the moment as apprehended by Lear, and his commitment to the sketch itself as an unpredictable medium for essaying thought and feeling. As the exhibition’s title suggests, attention will also be paid to Lear’s interest in capturing sequences of moments through and across time; his desire, for example, to time-stamp several sketches in quick succession (Philae 8.45 am, 9.10am, 9.40 am). And, as he paints, Lear often has a sense of the present being shot through and saturated by other moments. To respond to a view or vista is, for him, to be reminded of another time; landscape becomes dreamscape as his pictorial imagination puts him in touch with strange feelings of nostalgia, déjà vu, and desire. Throughout Moment to Moment, as visitors walk and gaze from one image to the next, they will be invited to experience the artist’s way of being in the world, to take part in a Learical drama played out between the emergent and the ephemeral.

Thanks to Matt Bevis for letting me know.

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Edward Lear (attrib.), Palermo

Edward Lear, Palermo.
Pencil. 10x15cm.


The lot includes two more pictures, clearly not by Lear, one of them is nice:

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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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Little Bits of Nonsense

Here is another sequence of illustrated limericks that appeared in the early American comics supplements, in this case in the Detroit Free Press of 22 November, 1902. I have been unable to find more instalments.

Thanks to Sunday Press Books‘ Peter Maresca (great new early comic strip books with a high proportion of nonsense content are  available).

For more, see my Nonsense in the Early Comics page. (BTW: I have added a new strip of The Loony Lyrics of Lulu by Gustave Verbeek. Now all that were published are in the archive.)

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Yale’s Edward Lear Archive

Edward Lear, Nice from the Genoa Road (1865). Yale Center for British Art.

Stephen Duckworth informs me of an interesting archive at Yale:

The Yale Center for British Art has long been known for having the second largest collection of Lear drawings in the world, after the Houghton Library at Harvard. Most of these, and some oil paintings, came as a gift from an American, Donald Gallup, who had acquired them cheaply in London after the Second World War. The YCBA website provides good images and description of all these works.
What is probably less well known is the Center’s Edward Lear Archive. It contains some ten Lear letters to Ann Lear and others. It also contains many lists of drawings in Lear’s own hand and also in the writing of his executor Franklin Lushington which have recently come to light and been catalogued.


The site does not reproduce these. It paraphrases the letters, and gives basic information on the contents of each drawings list. The hope I am told is to digitise these in due course. For researchers on Lear’s journeys, the material is invaluable as numbered drawings are listed for fifteen of Lear’s main journeys. I was able to fully use an 1856 Mount Athos list for my website.
There are further lists by Lear of watercolours and oils he had retained and was still selling in the 1880s, almost up to his death in 1888. The Lushington lists were clearly made from the stocks of drawings Lear sent to him in that decade and left to him on his death. These will be the many Lear drawings which came on to the market in 1929 when Lushington’s daughter disposed of them to the dealer, Craddock and Barnard.
Stephen Duckworth

You can also download a “Guide to the Edward Lear Archive,” MSS 59.

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Irish Literary ‘Learics’

I have long thought that the word “learic” was an invention of modrn limerick scholars desperate to find a way to justify the word “limerick,” whose origin as it is applied to Edward Lear’s nonsenses is mysterious, but here is a section from an 1899 book,  Idyls of Killowen: A Soggarth’s Secular Verses (London: James Bowden, 1899), by Matthew Russell, S.J.

Thanks to Doug Harris for sending me the link.

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An Exile in Paradise: The Adventures of Edward Lear

Derek Smith recently uploaded the three episodes of An Exile in Paradise: The Adventures of Edward Lear to YouTube.

A three part series
In 1848 Edward Lear, writer and illustrator of nonsense verse, set out on an epic journey through Greece and Albania. But Lear was more than just a humorist, he was an excellent landscape artist, traveller and writer of travel books. With Lear’s writings and drawings as a guide, presenter Robert Horne followed Lear’s journey through the awe-inspiring scenery of the southern Balkans, where he encountered fascinating reminders of a turbulent past and the warmth of the modern inhabitants: the inspiration for all travellers.

Producer: Dr Quentin Russell
Director: Derek Smith
Executive Producer: Finian O’Sullivan

Programme 1: Into Ottoman Lands
In the attractive setting of Corfu, Robert Horne outlines Lear’s background and some surprising connections with Greece and Athens before embarking on the journey proper from Thessaloniki to the Albanian border, taking in the breathtaking beauty of the mountain lakes, Prespa and Ochrid.

Programme 2: The Devil Draws
As an artist Lear was attacked as Satan throughout Muslim lands, something that would not happen in modern Albania. Whilst exploring the remains of Albania’s rich heritage and the Ottoman past Robert Horne is intrigued by Albania’s recent history and how the eccentric rule of the communist dictator Enver Hoxha casts its shadow over the present.

Programme 3: Greece Coast to Coast
Lear was impressed by the legacy of the struggle of the local people against Ottoman oppression. Nowhere was this more exemplified than in the mountains of northern Greece. Robert finds that stories of those times are still celebrated, and Lear himself remembered, but the traditional way of life pursued in this breathtaking landscape is fighting to survive against encroaching modernity.

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Edward Lear, Fomm Ir-Rih, Malta (1866)

Edward Lear, Fomm Ir-Rih, Malta.
Pen and brown ink and watercolour; inscribed, lower right: Fommer Rih / 2 P.M /  March 1 1866 / 79, further inscribed with colour notes, unframed. 153 by 253 mm.

Sale, London, Bonham’s, 16 September 2009, lot 163;
bt. by the present owner.

According to Lear’s inscription, this plein air drawing was executed at 2 o’clock in the afternoon on 1st March 1866. Lear has depicted the dramatic and geologically diverse landscape of Fomm Ir-Rih, which is located on the west coast of Malta.
Having left England for Venice in September of 1865, Lear then travelled south to Malta. Renting lodgings situated three miles from the port of Valetta, he remained on the island for almost three months, before travelling on to Corfu, via Dalmatia and Montenegro.


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Edward Lear, Ascalon, Palestine

Edward Lear, Ascalon, Palestine.
Watercolour over pencil, heightened with touches of bodycolour; signed with monogram lower right. 105 by 205 mm.

John, Lord D’Ayton (1922-2003);
thence by descent to the present owners.

The sculptor Thomas Woolner (1825-1892) believed that Lear’s Holy Land drawings were ‘the most beautiful things he has ever done…not only for the mystery and history attached to the places themselves but also for the excessive fineness, tenderness and beauty of the art displayed in them.’1
Lear visited Palestine after leaving Cairo in the spring of 1867. He spent several days sketching at Memphis before travelling on to Jerusalem. On the way he stopped at Ascalon, where he executed the present work.

1. V. Noakes, Edward Lear 1812-1888, London 1985, p. 112.


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