The title under which this watercolour has been known, 'And Highest, Snow and Fire', comes from Tennyson's Palace of Art (1832, revised edn. 1842) and links it to Lear's scheme to illustrate all of Tennyson's poems, a project begun in 1852 and continued until the mid 1880s. The composition is repeated in one of Lear's monochrome 'eggs' (these were so named by Lear, presumably because they were intended to 'hatch' into finished works) of the early 1880s, which is inscribed 'And highest, snow and fire.- (The Palace of Art)' (lower left) and 'Etna, from Taormina./Sicily/' (lower right) (see R. Pitman, Edward Lear's Tennyson, Manchester, 1988, p. 83, illustrated p. 85).
This watercolour may indeed be one of the earlier, coloured and slightly larger finished watercolours which Lear executed primarily for sale and referred to as his 'tyrants' (Lear's feelings about such works are reflected in his name for them) related to the scheme, dating from the late 1870s. A pen and ink drawing of this composition, 10 x 20 in., is in the Cecil Higgins Museum, Bedford and a smaller, simplified drawing in black ink, approximately 5 x 8 in., belonged to Douglas Wing. There are dated studies made at Taormina on 24 and 27 June 1847, and also an oil on board of this view, 12½ x 19 in., dated 29 June 1847 (Sotheby's London, 9 July 1988, lot 125, illustrated); a version in oil on canvas, 19 x 31 in., was sold at Sotheby's New York, 24 May 1984, illustrated in colour.
Lear had already visited Sicily in 1842 but his main visit was from 3 May to 19 July 1847, when he travelled with John Proby, heir to Lord Carysfort. He wrote to his sister Ann on 11 July 1847: 'Taormina is perhaps one of the most wonderful places in the world... The views on all sides are most astonishing, particularly the ruins of the theatre, which overlook Mt. Etna, & are very perfect - Taormina having been a celebrated Greek city'.