Lear visited Constantinople, already officially called Istanbul, in 1848 as the guest of Lady Canning, the wife of the British Ambassador in Turkey, setting off from Corfu with the Cannings on 30 May 1848 and travelling by way of Athens where he fell ill. He arrived in Constantinople on 1 August but fell ill again and was cared for by Lady Canning in the British Ambassador's summer residence at Therapia, finally settling at the Hotel d'Angleterre in Pera, the European quarter of Istanbul, on 1 September. He used the hotel as a base for exploring the city and the Bosphorus and for buying silks and exotic local delicacies. (For Lear's sojourn in Istanbul, see S. Hyman, Edward Lear in the Levant, 1988, pp. 54-62).
Lear executed a number of drawings from a boat off the south eastern shore of Constantinople on 2 September, including two general views, of the same elongated format as this finished watercolour. The first (sold at Sotheby's London, 28 November 1974, lot 89, illustrated) omits the Sultan Ahmet Mosque and is taken from a point closer to the shore, a little further west. The second (sold at Sotheby's London, 24 November 1977, lot 152, and again 16 October 1980, lot 24, illustrated) formed the basis for the present watercolour. It is anotated 'achmet' below the Sultan Ahmet Mosque and numbered '21'.
Lear described the view of Istanbul from the sea in a letter to his sister Anne, dated 12 August 1848 (V. Noakes, Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer, London, 1968, pp. 68-71): 'Certainly - no city is so wonderfully beautiful when you approach it - it was far beyond my idea...I think the perpetual change as the steam moves on, of ruined walls, immense domes - brilliantly white minarets & all mixed with such magificent cypress, pine, & plane foliage is truly wonderful'; this was the effect he retained in his two sketches of 2 September.
The fact that it was in the collection of Henry Strachey suggests that the watercolour was painted for, or at least purchased directly from, the artist by his parents, Lear's old friends Sir Edward and Lady Strachey. Lady Strachey, born Constance Braham, edited Lear's letters and nonsense poetry in the early years of this century.