After several vain attempts, Lear finally visited Mount Athos in September-October 1856. He hated the monastic life there, describing it as 'God's world maimed & turned upside down :- God's will laughed at & falsified', but added that 'I never saw any more striking scenes than these forest screens & terrible crags, all lovely lovely lovely: paths thro' them leading to hermitages where these dead men abide, - or to the immense monasteries where many hundred of these living corpses chaunt prayers nightly & daily: the blue sea dars dars against the hard iron rocks below - & the oak fringed or chesnut covered height above, with always the great peak of Athos towering over all things ...' (letter to Mrs. Tennyson, 9 October 1856; Vivien Noakes, ed., Edward Lear: Selected Letters, Oxford 1988, pp. 139-40).
Lear planned to publish the drawings he did on this visit together with his journal but nothing came of this (Vivien Noakes, Edward Lear, London 1968; 1979 edition pp. 115, 119, 122). He did however do twenty-seven drawings of Mount Athos among his illustrations to Tennyson (Ruth Pitman, Edward Lear's Tennyson, Manchester and New York, 1988, pp. 140-2); they were to illustrate Tennyson's verses 'To Edward Lear on his Travels in Greece' of 1851-2, published 1853. This composition was no. 122 (altered from 123), inscribed 'Athos, all things fair,/(To E.L. on his travels in Greece.)/Monastery of Stavronikites/Mount Athos' (repr. Pitman, p. 152).
Lear also painted ten oils of Mount Athos, including one of 1857 based on this composition (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection; repr. Edward Lear 1812-1888, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, April-July 1985, no. 53).
For the Earl of Northbrook as in important patron of Edward Lear, see lot 100