Mount Kinchinjunga, now better known as Kangchenjunga, ranked above the even higher Mount Everest in the days of the Raj, dominating the view from Darjeeling. Lear's friend and patron Lord Northbrook was appointed Viceroy of India in 1871 and within weeks had invited Lear to tour India as his guest. After delays and misfortunes had delayed Lear's visit for a year (during which time he visited England from his new home in San Remo and secured a number of commissions for Indian subjects), he arrived in Bombay on 22 November 1873. After leaving Lord Northbrook, Lear set off for Benares where he spent a number of days in mid December. On 16 January 1874, he arrived at Darjeeling where, the next day, after an early breakfast, he had a 'Wonderful wonderful view of Kinchinjunga!!!!' (quotations from Ray Murphy, ed., Edward Lear's Indian Journal, London, 1953, pp. 62-5, corrected from the manuscript in the Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachussets, by Vivien Noakes in Edward Lear 1812-1888, exhibition catalogue, London, Royal Academy of Arts, 1985, pp. 155-6). By the next day, 18 January, his enthusiasm had waned: 'Kinchinjunga is not - so it seems to me - a sympathetic mountain; it is so far off, so very god=like and stupendous, & all that great world of dark opal vallies full of misty, hardly to be imagined forms, - besides the all but impossibility of expressing the whole as a scene - make-up a rather distracting and repelling whole!' The next day he went up to see the view both in the morning and the evening and his enthusiasm returned: 'Kinchinjunga at sunrise is a glory not to be forgotten; Kinchinjunga pm is apt to become a wonderful hash of Turneresque colour & mist & space but with little claim to forming a picture of grand effect', a doubt he dispelled by painting no fewer than three large oils on commission, for Lord Aberdare, who had given Lear the choice of an Indian subject (466 x 70.7/8 in.; signed and dated 1877; now in the collection of Cynon Valley Borough Council; see Noakes, loc.cit., no. 63, illustrated), Louisa Lady Ashburton (73 x 112 in.; signed and dated 1877; US private collection; see Christie's London, 20 July 1979, lot 181, illustrated) and Lord Northbrook (48 x 71 in.; signed and dated 1879; US private collection; exhibited Worcester Art Museum, Massachussets, Edward Lear, Poet and Draughtsman, 1968, no. 84, illustrated). (Lear's letter of 18 October 1875 to Lord Carlingford mentioning his 'HARD WORK' on paintings of Kinchinjunga is ambiguous, suggesting that he was working on two such works for Lord Aberdare, but that of 7 May 1876 to the same recipient speaks of only one; see Lady Strachey, ed. Later Letters of Edward Lear, London, 1911, pp. 187, 195.)
On 25 January Lear spoke of how, 'Near sunset, we were at the little Buddhist shrine, a picture, with Kinchinjunga clear and rosy, heighted beyond', which describes all three oils and several finished watercolours, including this example, though the placing of the little Buddhist shrine and its attendant figures varies from one side of the ravine dropping into the distance to the other, as in the case of a watercolour very similar to this one in size and degree of finish, again signed with Lear's monogram but undated (9.7/8 x 15 in.; formerly Lord Carlingford and Lord Strachey; exhibited London, Gooden and Fox, Edward Lear 1812-1888, 1968, no. 101, illustrated).
Among the Lear material from Lord Northbrook now in the Houghton Library there are seventeen on-the-spot drawings of Kinchinjunga, one inscribed 'Darjeeling/1-2.30 & 3 PM/18. Jany 1874' (illustrated Worcester Art Museum exhibition catalogue, 1968, no. 36), and another, close in the main foliage to our watercolour, but without the Buddhist shrine, inscribed 'Darjeeling/21. Jany 1874/8-9-AM/2-3-PM/(159)' (exhibited London, Arts Council, Edward Lear 1812-1888, 1958, no. 58).
As in further watercolours, Lear used a somewhat different view of Mount Kinchinjunga from Darjeeling, without trees or shrine, in his series of projected illustrations to the works of Lord Tennyson, in this case the poem 'To E.L. on his Travels in Greece [sic]' (see Ruth Pitman, Edward Lear's Tennyson, Manchester and New York, 1988, pp. 141, 205, no. 145, illustrated).