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Volume 37, Number 4July/August 1986

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There Was a Young Man Named Lear

Written by Arthur Clark
Illustrated by Edward Lear

There was a young man named Lear,

Whose paintings were impossibly dear;

But when late his art

Captured everyone’s heart,

Poor Lear had passed over, I fear.

When Edward Lear sent his famous "Owl and Pussy-cat" out to sea in their "beautiful pea-green rowboat" more than 100 years ago, some of their favorite ports of call were no doubt in the Middle East. At least that's one reading of the nonsense song - especially when it's held up to Lear the artist, whose paintings and sketches were displayed in a major exhibition at London's Royal Academy of Arts from April to July last year.

Among the works exhibited were sweeping oils of Beirut and Jerusalem and the isle of Philae in the Nile; studies of Petra, the Dead Sea and Jericho; and watercolors of Jaffa and Mount Sinai. In a penetrating look at a man whose visual art was never publicly acclaimed while he lived, the academy published excerpts from Lear's travel journals and diaries to correct the picture of someone who often hid himself behind the self-portrait of a bumbling, rotund fellow with a bushy beard and spectacles.

Lear, of course, was an artist of repute during his lifetime - he began to draw and paint professionally at age 16 in 1828 - and as an ornithological draftsman he had few peers. But, by 1836, he found his eyesight too poor to continue detailed animal sketching and set off on a nearly never-ending journey to become what he later called a "landskip" artist. Here, he found at least initial success: Queen Victoria liked his "Illustrated Excursions in Italy," published in 1846, so well that she commissioned him to teach her drawing.

Nor was royal interest in Lear's work reserved to the Queen alone. In 1859, the Prince of Wales - later King Edward VII - visited him at his Rome studio and six years later he chose two of Lear's finished watercolors of Mid-Eastern scenes, "Jaffa" and "View from Luxor," for the Royal Collection. Both watercolors were featured at the exhibition.

One reason Lear failed to find the success of his better-known colleagues, suggested Vivien Noakes, biographer of Lear, in an interview with Aramco World at the Royal Academy last summer, was the very fact he was so often on the road. "He was too much abroad due to his health," she said. As a child, Lear was often ill with bronchial ailments; he was prone to bouts of depression throughout his life and he sought to hide the fact that he suffered from epilepsy.

Further, he was not the "self-promoter" necessary to be a successful artist in the Victorian age. "He didn't take himself seriously to the public and he never really moved into the mainstream of painting in England," Noakes said.

Lear also clearly overpriced some of his major works and then made the situation worse by mass-producing watercolors to earn enough on which to live - and travel - further tarnishing his reputation. Then, in Cairo in 1866 without adequate funds to continue a sketching expedition, he wrote to patrons asking for money in advance. While he got the cash to travel up the Nile, he also alienated some of his best prospective customers. Although his work was exhibited in major galleries and he was making sales in the 1850's, his reputation declined steadily beginning in the 1860's and continuing until his death in 1888.

The clarity and beauty of much of his art was not recognized again until the 1920's, when his original sketches and drafts for scenes in southern Europe and the Middle East came onto the market.

Lear worked mainly from pencil sketches and notes taken in the field, which he later turned into draft watercolors with inked-in notes. He took the preliminary work back to his studios in Europe - he lived successively in Rome, Corfu and San Remo - to show them for prospective commissions and prepare finished watercolors and oils for sale.

Ironically, it was that "preliminary" work, sold in the 1920's and 1930's for only a few dollars per painting (and worth many hundreds today), that brought him back into the artistic limelight. The bulk of those thousands of watercolors are now at the Houghton Library at Harvard.

By the time the Prince of Wales had acquired some of Lear's works in 1865, the artist had already made three journeys to Egypt, including a 10-week trip up the Nile to Luxor and Aswan. He had also traveled to Palestine with stops at Jerusalem, Hebron and the Dead Sea, and made swings to Beirut and Damascus. He would return to the Middle East, in 1866-67 and again in 1872 on his first attempt to visit India.

Even earlier, Lear had explored parts of Italy and Sicily sketched in Greece and Albania and visited Constantinople. And he had published several editions of his Book of Nonsense, full of verses that would later become known as "limericks."

Indeed, limericks about "a young lady of Tyre" (in Lebanon), "an old man of el-Hums" (in Syria), "a young person of Smyrna" (in Turkey) and "an old person of Philoe" (correctly, Philae, on the Nile), reflected Lear's continued fascination with the Middle East

Lear "went to places where he could paint pictures people would probably buy," said Noakes. But the artist, a loner by nature, who once wrote "the elements, trees, clouds... seem to have far more part with me or I with them, than mankind," was as intrigued by brilliant color and history as he was with sales and would probably have visited the far-flung lands he did simply "out of personal interest," she added. Lear prepared well for his trips, even taking on an Arabic tutor prior to his entry into the Middle East.

But he often wrote in his own enchanted language, making up words and phrases to best fit descriptive needs. Lear's initial watercolor sketches bear what first seem like nonsense reference notes: "rox," "phiggs" or "bloo ski," for example. On his 1872 stop in Cairo, he referred to the Pyramids of Giza - the subject of one of the most popular paintings at the exhibition - as the "Pirrybids." And in March, 1867, while en route from Cairo to Gaza in Palestine, he even sought to describe the indescribable, calling the sounds made by camels "gulpyroarygroanery."

His "nonsense" may have been an admission that some things were beyond words. Indeed, Lear often expressed wonder that he, as an artist, could ever hope to capture faithfully the works of nature and man which he discovered on his voyages.

In a sense, he was an "Orientalist" in the mold of David Roberts (See Aramco World, November-December 1984), intent on producing work for a public hungry to see the wonders of a hitherto hidden civilization. But, in another, he was one who reveled in wonder, as his comments on repeated trips to the lands that enraptured him make plain.

Lear first went to the Middle East in 1849, traveling to Cairo, Suez and Sinai. Late in 1853, he was back in Cairo, getting ready to travel up the Nile, a river he described as "magnificent... with endless villages" and covered with white-sailed feluccas "which look like giant moths."

He camped 10 days on the "fairy island" of Philae near Aswan and called the Temple of Isis there "so extremely wonderful that no words can give the least idea of it." One measure of Lear's feeling for the island is that it figured in at least 20 of his oils - more than any other subject he painted. On his return to Cairo, he stopped at Karnak, near Luxor, and wandered in temples and the Valley of the Kings on the west side of the river, sketching and seeing himself as "a cheese mite among such giants."

In the spring of 1858, Lear was back in the Middle East, armed with commissions for two major works from Palestine. He disembarked at Jaffa, traveled on to Jerusalem and looked long at the Dead Sea from atop the Mount of Olives, describing it as "clear pale milky far blue, with farther pale rosy mountain - fretted and carved in lovely shadow forms." He later rode by camel to Petra - a trip marred by the theft of all his funds. But he was no less captivated by the famed Nabataean city - though again he wondered about his ability to portray it on paper.

Petra's attraction, he wrote, arose from its "singular mixture of architectural labor with the wildest extravagances of nature - the excessive and almost terrible feeling of loneliness in the midst of scenes so plainly telling of a past glory and a race of days long gone." He called the "vivid contrasts" between Petra's ruined walls and hollow tombs on one hand and its "rainbow hues of rock" decked with the purple blossoms of oleander and white broom on the other, a "magical condensation of beauty and wonder which the ablest pen or pencil has no chance of conveying to the eye or mind..."

Lear soon sailed for Beirut. It reminded him of Naples, he said, with its "numerous villas and gardens, and the civil and gay people." He also climbed to the famed Cedars of Lebanon, the subject for a huge - subsequently lost - oil. "There was only one drawback to my pet cedars," he wrote. He was more than 1820 metres (6000 feet) up, surrounded by snowy peaks, and "the cold was so great I could not hold my pencil well."

He then traveled on to Damascus, describing the scene as "16 worlds full of gardens rolled out flat, with a river and a glittering city in the middle." But the heat of the impending summer had so tired him he once more departed for home.

Lear’s longest Middle East sojourn came in 1866-67, when he combined his most extensive Egyptian trip with another visit to the Levant. His return to Cairo in December was joyful: "O! Dear! What wonderful street scenes..." he wrote. "And to me what wonders of broad beautiful green and lilac vegetation and far hills (Synosques... O sugar canes! O camels! O Egypt!"

But the outset of the journey was trying, in an almost modern way. First, he made the mistake of asking for an advance from patrons to carry out his trip. And second, he met his cousin Archie in Luxor and quickly found the younger man was bent only on acquiring tourist trinkets and speeding in and out of ancient temples. Lear, who preferred to travel in what he called a "stopping, prying, lingering mode," had hoped for a thoughtful companion with whom he could share the Nile's beauties.

But the trip was a rich one for the artist anyway. He and his cousin visited Wadi Haifa in Nubia and then traveled to see the rock-carved Pharaonic busts at Abu Simbel... "Happy I am to feel that I nearly cried with a burst of amazement and delight - even after all I had seen and read of these statues," he wrote.

His planned trip from Egypt to Palestine proved more difficult than expected, despite Archie's departure. He complained of the problems of long-distance camel travel - "to wit beetles in your hair" - and once more sailed home.

Though Lear's Owl and Pussy-cat never grumbled about their traveling situation, they never faced the same problems their creator did. After all, as he noted in the famous nonsense song: "They took some honey, and plenty of money, all wrapped in a five-pound note."

The London exhibition which featured dozens of Lear's Middle Eastern works, showed a lesser-known side of the gifted man's character. The exhibition was a "long overdue" recognition of Lear's artistic merits, said Noakes. But, she added, "I still don't think he'd be able to take himself seriously."

Aramco writer Arthur Clark reviewed Lear's paintings and career on a recent visit to London.

This article appeared on pages 2-9 of the July/August 1986 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1986 images.