Lear visited Montenegro late in April 1866, during a tour of the Dalmatian coast. His diary describes, on 26 April, the road up from the coastal town of Cattaro 'to Montenegro & really as it ended in cloud it suggested a far more convenient and elegant ascent for the legend of Jacob's dream than the conventional ugly ladder generally used ...'. Lear walked 'a mile or so along the Lake, for so it seem.... The vast semicircle of mountain crags is most striking' (Ruth Pitman, Edward Lear's Tennyson, Manchester and New York 1988, p. 137).
A smaller finished watercolour, 6 7/8 x 14 5/8in. (170 x 370mm.), signed and dated 1866, was sold in these Rooms 9 July 1985, lot 193, repr. in colour; it is wider in format and the figures in the foreground are different. A variant of this composition appears as number 102 of Lear's illustrations to Tennyson, mainly done from 1878 onwards, inscribed with the lines 'oer the hills and far away,/Beyond their utmost purple rim' from The Day-Dream (see Pitman, op. cit., pp. 135-7, repr.).
This large watercolour seems to be the work referred to by Lear in a number of letters of the 1870s and 1880s. On 26 July 1870 Lear wrote to his patron Lord Derby from Cuneo saying that 'My new painting room at Sanremo will not be ready (I fear) for early work in oil this winter ... but I was about until it be so to do 2 large (for watercolour,) drawings in order to try - (vainly I fear,) to get elected Associate at the Old W/color Society: The stained paper for these 2 is (I believe) already on its way out, & I have already made the rough designs for the drawings - Montenegro & Corfù ...'.
Later the same year, on 11 December 1870, Lear wrote to Lady Wyatt from San Remo that 'I am at work, - when I work wh is very irregularly, - on a large W.Color picture of Montenegro: and though parts are done - parts ain't ...'. He adds, 'The Montenegro is a cold and gloomy scene - as it is intended to be, for it is in so in reality: and I have done one bit of rock so well you sprain your ankles directly you look at it. In the foreground I had taken a gt deal of pain in a large figure of a Montenegrine, & he was really like life. But some days back as I went into the next room I heard an odd trumpetty noise, and coming back, he had put out his hand, & had taken my pockethankerchief off the table, and was blowing his nose violently! ... I instantly had to sponge out the whole man, for I thought, if he can take up a handkf, he may take up spoons or money. So I killed him, and I wonder where his better part has gone to. O dear! I wish I had done this dreadful drawing! & that I had sold it!'.
In a letter to Baroness Burdett-Coutts from San Remo of 7 February 1883 Lear mentions a large unfinished drawing of Corfù from Virò, adding that 'The fellow drawing of this, Montenegro, - belongs to Earl Northbrook'. Thomas George Baring, later 1st Early of Northbrook, was one of Lear's closest friends, inviting him to India as his guest between 1873 and 1875 when he was Viceroy and Governor-General there (see Noakes, op. cit, p. xl and passim). Many of the drawings in the Houghton Library, Harvard University, now the most important collection of Lear's work, previously belonged to Lord Northbrook, and were still housed in the wooden drawers which Lear had made when he moved into Villa Emily, San Remo, when they were sold (see Royal Academy, Edward Lear 1812-88, p. 12).
The work included in the Fine Arts Society Exhibition in 1983 was described in the catalogue as an oil on canvas, 24 x 48in., but a label on the back of this watercolour shows that it was this work