This finished watercolour was based on drawings executed during Lear's first visit to Athens in 1848. He had been based in Rome from 1837 and planned to tour the eastern Mediterranean before returning to England. He set out from Rome in April, travelling to Athens via Malta and Corfu, where he met Sir Stratford Canning, British Ambassador to Constantinople, and his wife who invited him to stay at the Embassy in Athens, where they arrived on 2 June. As he wrote to his sister Ann on 3 June. 'I have risen as early as I could this morning, & surely never was anything so magnificent as Athens! - far more than I had any idea of. The beauty of the temples I know well from endless drawings - but the immense sweep of plain with exquisitely formed mountains down to the sea - & the manner in which that high mass of rock - the Acropolis - stands above the modern town with its glistening white marble ruins against the deep blue sky is quite beyond expectations' (V. Noakes, Edward Lear: Selected Letters, Oxford 1988, p. 76). Lear dated a number of drawings between 5 June and 23 July, before leaving for a tour of Greece; he arrived in Constantinople in August and finally got back to England in July 1849.
Of the on-the-spot drawings executed at Athens the most comparable seems to be that at Harvard inscribed 'Athens/June 5-6/1848/Hymettos' (11½ x 19¾ in.; P. Hofer, Edward Lear as a Landscape Draughtsman, Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1967, p. 22, pl. 76). Among his finished watercolours one from the collection of the late Sir Steven Runciman, negotiated in lieu of Inheritance Tax to the National Gallery of Scotland in 2002, shows much the same view, but extending further to the left with trees in the foreground and cut off at the right so that the Temple of Hephaistos does not appear (7 7/8 x 12 5/8 in., inscribed 'Athens/1849' and signed and dated 'Edward Lear /1849'; see Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland, Watercolours by Edward Lear from the Collection of the Hon. Sir Steven Runciman, CH, exhibition catalogue, February-April 1991, no. 1, illustrated on cover). The present watercolour dates from 1850, a year later.
In 1852 Lear exhibited an Athens subject at the British Institution, no. 238, 'The Acropolis of Athens, sunrise; Peasants assembling on the road to the Pireas [sic]', but the title suggests a view from the south-west, whereas in the present watercolour, the Theseion (now identified as the Temple of Hephaistos, formerly known as the Theseion) seen on the right of the Acropolis, shows a view from the north-west with the figures to the north.
Samuel William Clowes (1821-1898), M.P. for North Leicester, was a life-long friend of Lear's. They first met at Knowsley when Lear was there in the 1830s, to draw in the Earl of Derby's private menagerie. Clowes was one of the people whom Lear hoped might accompany him to Egypt on the tour of 1847-9, and they visited Rome together in the winter of 1858-9. Clowes was still loyally visiting Lear in San Remo in 1881 (Noakes, op.cit., pp. 68, 256). Clowes owned a considerable collection of Lear's work including a number of Lear's large oil paintings.