Edward Lear at the National Gallery, Edinburgh. LISTINGS: GLASGOW 52 EDINBURGH 53 MUSEUMS 56
Miranda France previews an exhibition of Edward Lear’s watercolours and discovers another side to the creator of the Quangle Wangle and the Dong with a Luminous Nose.
How pleasant to know Mr Lear.’
Who has written such volumes of stuff!
Some think him ill-tempered and queer,
But afew think him pleasant enough.
When Edward Lear wrote these self-deprecating lines in a letter to a friend some time before his death. he unwittingly devised for himselfan epitaph with more than a little truth in it. For. while his nonsense poems were popular in Victorian society. they neither won him great prestige. nor enough to live on. And. although he was doubtless ‘pleasant enough‘, he was also a perpetual invalid — epileptic. asthmatic and bronchitic— and apt to make emotional and tiring demands on his loyal friends.
It was not even Lear‘s intention to make a living from writing. He was by profession a zoological draughtsman and. in I832, he took up an invitation to draw the birds and animals on Lord Derby‘s estate. There he began writing limericks as a way ofentertaining the children — and presumably also the adults — of the household.
But he was an invalid and in the 19th century invalids who could afford the fare took off to healthier climes. Lear spent most of the next ten
Caricature: ‘A dirty landscape-painterwho hated his nose‘.
years in Rome and thereafter much of his life travelling in Europe. the Middle East and India. His failing eyesight had persuaded him that he was unable to meet the demands and precision of drawing animals. He had decided to turn to landscape painting. During the next 50 years he sketched and painted largely unexploited and often stunning scenery — much ofwhich has since disappeared - in a variety of different countries and sometimes in very difficult conditions. In theory these sketches and watcrcolours were intended as studies for the large-scale oil paintings he hoped would establish him as an artist.
In a sense Lear was ‘discovered‘ and certainly very much inﬂuenced by Holman Hunt. Hunt was one of the three original members ofthe Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (the other two were Rossetti and Millais) whose crusading cry ‘Back to Nature!‘ was sending shock waves round the art establishment in London. He was certainly a supportive friend to the shy. anxious artist. but it seems that Hunt was not good for Lear artistically. Lear’s oil paintings were unremarkable and it seems that few people, with the exception of the good old, loyal friends, were keen to buy them.
Instead, the preliminary studies to the oil paintings become popular. especially after his death (many a dead artist must have turned in his grave at the injustice of posthumous fame). Lear did not die in poverty. but he was always preoccupied by money. Towards the end of his life he remarked. ‘Old friends cannot go on always buying. but I have always to go on eating.‘
Of the estimated 10.000 watercolours painted by Edward Lear. a manageable 42 will be exhibited at the National Gallery in Edinburgh.
Athens as Edward Lear saw it in1849
They are all on loan from the collection of the historian Sir Steven Runciman who first bought a Lear when. as a young man, he stumbled across some drawings ofCorfu in a Cambridge bookshop. They were ‘ridiculously cheap‘ since. at that time. Lear‘s talents as a watercolourist were largely ignored. Sir Steven is still enthusiastic about his find. ‘His oil paintings are coloured in what. I suppose. is the neo-classical tradition.’ he says. ‘derived. perhaps. from Poussin but no longer with the freshness ofthe great French master. His watercolours owe more to Turner. an artist whom he greatly admired. and some of them look forward to the work of artists like Cczanne.‘
Edward Lear is certainly not the first artist to receive serious critical acclaim a long time after his death. but. since he is known to most of us ~— as the caricaturist and writer of Nonsense — it is surprising that we know so little about the painter in him. An unhappy man. plagued by the "Terrible Demon‘ ofepilepsy. his lack ofsecurity was reflected in his obsessive. exhausting journeys and his very unﬂattering self-caricatures. But he seems to have derived considerable pleasure from his painting.
He took a bitter pride in a description he once heard ofhimselfas a ‘dirty landscape-painter‘ — although he preferred the epithet ‘Landskip painter‘. It was a phrase taken up by W. II. Auden in his own epitaph for Lear:
Left by his friend to breakfast alone on the white Italian shore, his Terrible Demon arose
() ver his shoulder; he wept to himsel fin the night. A dirty landscape-painter who hated his nose. ' Edward Lear's watercolours can be seen at the National Gallery from 8 Feb—28 A pr.
The List 8— 21 February 1991 51