During his lifetime, and for several decades after his death in 1888, Lear was best known as the author of A Book of Nonsense and such delightful nonsense songs as 'The Owl and the Pussy-cat'. But he earned his living as a painter, and in more recent years - especially since the major exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1985 - his reputation has become firmly established as one of England's leading nineteenth-century landscape artists.
Lear travelled widely, partly because of his fascination for the discovery of new places and partly from a desire to find exciting scenery to paint. Although he lived for many years in Rome, and depicted many well-known historical sites in Italy and Greece and around the eastern Mediterranean, his greatest delight was in painting scenery that others had not previously portrayed. His wish was to open the eyes of the public to hitherto unrecorded landscape, often of dramatic beauty.
Lear journeyed twice down the Nile - in 1854 and 1867. It was during his first journey, in January 1854, that he saw Karr-es-Saad (now known as Kasr-es-Saiyyad). Writing to his sister Ann on the evening of 18 January, he said: 'Last night, we arrived at one of the most beautiful places I ever saw - Casr el Saadd. I am quite bewildered when I think how little people talk of the scenery of the Nile - because they pass it while sleeping I believe. Imagine immense cliffs, quite perpendicular, about as high as St Paul's & of yellow stone - rising from the most exquisite meadows all along the river! While below them are villages almost hidden in palms... it is one of the most beautiful spots in the world'.
Although most English painters in Egypt were primarily interested in the antiquities found in such abundance along the Valley of the Nile, Lear's imagination was caught by the natural, unadorned beauty of the scene. And it was not only the place itself that fascinated him. His early training and success had been as an ornithological draughtsman, and his work, Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots, completed when he was just nineteen, is one of the finest and most sought-after books of ornithological illustration. In the present painting the sweep of roosting birds reflects this early interest, while the whole picture calls to mind his nonsense poem, 'The Pelican Chorus', with its lines: 'We live on the Nile. The Nile we love. By night we sleep on the cliffs above; By day we fish, and at eve we stand On long bare islands of yellow sand. And when the sun sinks slowly down And the great rock walls grow dark and brown, When the purple river rolls fast and dim And the Ivory Ibis starlike skim, Wing to wing we dance around...'
Working from pencil and watercolour drawings done on the spot, he painted at least four oils of the scene. The earliest, done in 1856, was bought by Tennyson's close friend, Sir John Simeon; one for George Brightwen Esq., hung in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1870; the third was commissioned in the early 1870s by Captain Alfred M. Drummond, a member of the banking family; the fourth, the present painting, was bought by Louisa, Lady Ashburton.
We are grateful to Vivien Noakes for preparing this catalogue entry.