If you are absolutely alone in the world, and likely to be so, then move about continually and never stand still. —Edward Lear, 1859
Known and loved by generations of children for his limericks and nonsense rhymes, such as The Owl and the Pussycat, Edward Lear was, primarily, a landscape painter. Born in 1812, the twentieth child to parents of little means, an epileptic with no early artistic training, Lear’s humor and talent shaped his extraordinary life, which included a stint as drawing instructor to Queen Victoria and a working friendship with the poet Lord Alfred Tennyson . Lear began his artistic life as an ornithological painter, but at the age of twenty, he dedicated himself solely to landscape painting, finding in it the perfect focal point for his appreciation of nature and his indefatigable wanderlust. His watercolor and oil paintings of these “grisogorious places”—a nonsense phrase of his own invention—to which he traveled became the sole source of Lear’s income until his death in 1888. His journeys to Greece, the Ionian Islands, the Balkans, the Holy Land, Egypt, and India are recorded in scores of diary entries and letters in the voice of a brilliant and self-deprecating humorist.
Lear first left England in 1837 for Rome, where he made his headquarters for several years. In 1848, the outbreak of revolution in Europe compelled him to begin his extensive explorations abroad, mostly undertaken alone or in the company of a friend or servant. Wandering slowly in what he called a “stopping, prying, lingering mode of travel,” Lear would choose his subject and gaze for several minutes at the scene through a monocular glass. He then sketched rapidly with a pencil and made extensive notes about color and content. He recorded the specific location, date, and time on the sketch, which he numbered in numerical order by country. In the evenings, working from his notes, he added color washes and “penned out” the graphite in ink. Lear’s sketches, which form the majority of works on view here, brought him great pleasure, and served as the basis for the studio watercolor paintings he made for reproduction or sale. Although the more finished studio watercolors were critical to Lear’s financial success, he despised making them, calling them “drawings for consumption.”