HIts nonsensical verse and limericks have delighted generations of readers, with The Owl and the Pussycat among the most popular poems in English literature, but Edward Lear wanted recognition most as an oil painter of large subjects. Many of the landscape sketches that he created on his extensive travels around the world are now being shown for the first time.
They form an extraordinary visual diary of a nomadic, shy man who led an isolated life, partly to hide his epilepsy – a condition that carried a great deal of social stigma in his time. He spent more than 50 years touring Europe, the Middle East, India and beyond creating thousands of sketches.
With extraordinary speed, Lear captured moments in time, noting the location, date, and exact time of day on these images. When he visited the Temple of Amada, the ancient Egyptian temple in Nubia, in 1867, he drew it five times in 40 minutes, adding a time stamp to each one: 6:50 AM, 7:10 AM, 7:20 AM, 7:25 AM , 7:30 p.m.
The series is among more than 60 sketches by Lear that the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham will be showing in the first exhibition devoted entirely to his landscape sketches. The show, titled Edward Lear: Moment to Moment, opens in September.
More than half of the sketches have never been seen before. Some have been cross-checked with observations Lear made in previously unpublished journals he had kept over several decades.
The exhibition is co-curated by Matthew Bevis, Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford, and Ikon Director Jonathan Watkins.
Bevis said that observer that Lear would be “shocked” to learn that his pictorial journals would be exhibited, since these sketches were attempts at future work or aide-memoirs for his travels.
Watkins likened them to “small chunks of time”: “There will be a sequence of maybe five or six: 5:20, 5:30, 6:00. He might just be watching the light change or drifting down a river. You have this idea of time passing and a kind of frantic desire to somehow capture it.”
He added: “He often writes on the sketches and takes notes. He goes back to his hotel room or wherever he lives and colors it. Sometimes he listens to a song and writes down the notation. They are very insightful in a way that the more finished works are not.”
Watkins particularly highlighted “evocative” images of Lake Como and Malta, as well as views of India, which he described as “spectacular”.
Many of these sketches reflect the “nonsensical side” of Lear that he would not have included in his finished paintings, with details such as comical characters, nonsensical words, and silly notes to himself.
Bevis said: “On the sketch he wrote various nonsensical words. For “rock” it would be “Rox”; for a “ravine”, funnier, he would write “raven”. He is a language artist at the highest level. Nonsense words beginning to underscore the sketches actually seem much more enduring the year he published his book of nonsense – 1846. So there’s some kind of secret private joke going on.”
Some sketches bear scribbles for themselves: “A strong wind and so cold I must fetch a cloak.” Others have notes such as “semi genteel tree,” apparently referring to its nonsensical botanists, and placed in an otherwise grave landscape he’s a cartoonish stick figure.
In 1858, after a six-day camel trek, Lear arrived in Petra “more astonished than ever at any spectacle” – only to be driven out by local tribesmen for trespassing on their lands. He sketched the amphitheater in half an hour before escaping.
The exhibition draws on private and public collections in the UK and US, including vast holdings at Houghton Library, Harvard, which few have examined.
Bevis said that Lear’s talent as an artist was overshadowed by his fame as a poet, and that although “he dreamed of becoming an oil painter on grand subjects”, he dismissed his own watercolors as less worthy: “But it wouldn’t be that first time Lear made mistakes. In the 1860s he sold the rights to his publisher of the nonsense verse, which never went out of print, for £125.”
He described Lear as “something of a sad clown” who had to endure terrible challenges and contradictions: “He was in debt when he died. Without any training, he produced one of today’s most acclaimed books of natural history illustrations of birds of all time – David Attenborough called him ‘the finest bird artist ever’ – and he was indeed made Queen Victoria’s Master of Drawings. So there’s this odd mix of a self-taught genius and difficult circumstances.
“He was born with chronic asthma. He was epileptic. He kept this secret. He had a long history of depression. He had a series of unrequited relationships with young men. So he courted the upper echelons of society while feeling unworthy in many ways.”
Bevis adds that the value of his paintings exceeded anything Lear could have imagined: “He was always in trouble and probably would have smiled crookedly if he had known that one of his works would sell for almost 1 million almost 150 years later.” dollars would bring in .
“But he’s a great artist. You wouldn’t need to know anything about his nonsensical writings to find these sketches quite amazing.”