In October 1856 the artist and poet Edward Lear (1812-1888) sent a letter to his friend Charles Church (1823-1915), writing, ‘How often I thought of your anxiety and kindness to me at Thebes’. He was referring to a journey taken through Greece in 1848. The artist had fallen gravely ill and Church had brought the delirious Lear back to Athens — ‘By 4 horses on an Indiarubber bed’.
‘Church saved his life,’ confirms Annabel Kishor, Associate Specialist in British Drawings and Watercolours. ‘And although the trip was cut short, Lear had caught the travel bug.’ Lear had spent the previous decade living in Rome, but this expedition was to mark the start of the his wanderings across Europe, India and the Middle East that would inspire Alfred Lord Tennyson to write the poem, To E.L. [Edward Lear], On His Travels in Greece.
‘By the time he went to Greece in 1848 he was already a much-loved humorous author,’ says Kishor (Lear’s Book of Nonsense was published in 1846). ‘But this marks the beginning of a period of exploration and adventure that was to go on to define the rest of his life.’
Lear had met Church in Rome the previous summer, but it was in Athens, amid ‘a motley group, Greeks, politics, pipes’ that the artist became reacquainted with the young Oxford graduate at the home of his uncle, Sir Richard Church, who had been the commander of the Greek forces during the last stages of the War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire.
According to Church, the two immediately hit it off, excited by the prospect of exploring the Grecian ruins. ‘In fact they had a pretty rough time of it,’ says Kishor. ‘There was some armed conflict going on, although for Lear the people were incidental to the landscape, which he thought was utterly beautiful.’
The sketches and watercolours the artist made not only reveal his talent and ambition, says Kishor. ‘They are also a key historical record, particularly those of Athens seen from Mount Lycabettus. Today, the city fills the valley, but then it was just the Acropolis and the Turkish old town.’
Other pictures depict soldiers camping out by villages, indicating where skirmishes were happening across the country.
‘What’s so brilliant about Lear is that he inscribed every work in the collection with the date, the place, the time and the weather [“Thebes. July 4 1848 / a high wind and so cold I must go back for my coat”], so we can track the entire journey from start to finish,’ explains the specialist.
It is perhaps no surprise that Lear’s love of language and sense of the absurd should permeate even the notes and titles that accompany his paintings and sketches. One of Kishor’s favourite watercolours — ‘and one that is absolutely typical of Lear,’ she notes — simply says, ‘near Thebes 1848, thousands of goats black’.
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When Lear died in San Remo in Italy in 1888 — having lived in various locations around the Mediterranean for the last three decades of his life — he bequeathed more than 100 watercolours to Church. Sixteen of these were offered for sale for the first time by Church’s descendants in the Old Masters and British Drawings and Watercolours auction.
Church — who went on to become Principal of Wells Theological College — also wrote a book-length account of his travels with Lear in Greece, incorporating passages from Lear’s own journal, now lost. Their combined journals, with maps and Lear’s watercolours, have been published online at Edward Lear’s Grecian Travels.