1812, Highgate, London – 1888, San Remo, Italy
Painter, illustrator and author, Lear is one of the best-known and most prolific of the Victorian artist-travellers. Born in Highgate, North London, the twentieth of twenty-one children, Lear had little formal training as an artist and began his career very young, circa 1826-7. His first career was as an animal and bird painter, and he published Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots, in 1832. In the course of his natural history work, Lear came to the notice of the Earl of Derby, and was invited to the Derby country seat, Knowsley Hall, near Liverpool, in order to draw the animals in the private menagerie there. His first documented visit to Knowsley was in July 1830, and until his departure for the Continent in 1837 Lear was a regular visitor to the house, treating it almost as a second home. The Derby family and their close relatives the Hornbys were patrons and friends of Lear throughout his career. Because of the deterioration of his eyesight, he increasingly turned to landscape drawing, making a brief tour of County Wicklow in Ireland in August 1835 and a longer sketching tour of Lancashire and the Lake District between August and October 1836. He left England for Rome in July 1837 and spent much of the rest of his life out of England, firstly in Italy, then in Corfu and finally at San Remo in north Italy where he died. Although now widely known for his nonsense rhymes and limericks, Lear made his living from painting and was a hugely prolific draughtsman, publishing illustrated travel books between 1841 and 1869, as well as painting in oils. Lear was based abroad from 1837, but he did return to England nearly every summer until 1880; his longest stay was from June 1849 until December 1853. He probably went back to the Lake District in October 1850, and he certainly spent a week there from 27 August to 4 September 1858.
THE 1836 LAKE DISTRICT DRAWINGS
Lear left Knowsley Hall, the Lancashire home of the Earl of Derby, in the second week of August 1836. He was armed with letters of introduction and used them to visit a series of country houses in north Lancashire in the following four weeks. These comprised the Hornby family in Lancaster, the Howards at Levens Hall, the Websters at Eller How near Grange-over-Sands, the Braddylls at Conishead Priory near Ulverston, the Upton family at Ingmire Hall near Sedbergh, the Nowell family at Underley Hall near Kirkby Lonsdale, the Greenes at Whittington Hall, also near Kirkby Lonsdale, and the Bolton family at Storrs Hall on Windermere. Letters survive from Levens and Whittington which, together with surviving dated drawings, have enabled a partial reconstruction of the itinerary. Lear was at Storrs Hall from the 7th to the 9th of September, and from there commenced a tour of the Lake District.
Although he had produced many landscape drawings in the previous month, he began a new numerical sequence on the 9th of September. From this date until his return to Knowsley on the 30th of October, Lear travelled over nearly all of the Lake District. He covered the ground pretty well, going to most of the main lakes and sometimes revisiting locations, although he did not go to Coniston or Haweswater. He travelled by coach, on horseback or on foot, in all weathers, carrying all his sketching materials, which must have been well protected against the unpredictable weather. Lear was accustomed to start work early in the morning, and it is clear that, while sometimes he could not work because of the weather, on good days he was able to produce as many as six drawings a day in addition to covering the miles.
The drawings that survive from the tour are all in soft pencil and stump (wetted chalk), some with white bodycolour heightening and some with watercolour added, on blue-grey paper. They mostly measure approximately 7 by 10 ¼ inches (17.5 by 26 cms.); this size corresponds to an eighth of an imperial sheet (approximately 22 by 30 inches. Most of the drawings are dated precisely to the day. At a later date (that day, or at least within a few days, while the journey was fresh in his mind), Lear went through the drawings and gave them numbers in pen and brown ink, so that they are in the order in which he did them; as it was his first sketching tour of any length, it was the first time that he had done this, and it is a practice which he was to continue throughout his life. At some future date, many of the drawings have been slightly cropped, which has meant that either the whole or part of the date and/or the number has been removed. It is sometimes impossible therefore to give an absolutely precise date for some of the drawings, although the geographical location and the survival of dates on other drawings of the same area make an educated guess possible.
Although it is known from a letter that Lear returned to Knowsley on the 30th of October 1836, the latest date on a surviving drawing is the 20th of October and that drawing is numbered 124. If the weather remained good every day until the end of the month, it is possible for Lear to have completed a little over 190 drawings, but this is unlikely to have been the case, and the total is more probably around 140. Of this group, around half are traceable, or have appeared on the market since 1960. As it was to be for the rest of his career, Lear’s sketches were not for sale but provided the basis for finished works, which were worked up on commission. Although a handful of full watercolours are known, the finished works are in the same medium and on the same coloured paper as the sketches; they are also mostly the same size, and the only difference between them and the sketches is that they are signed and dated 1837. In a letter of early January 1837, Lear refers to working on “20 Landscapes - 3 Watercol: drawings”, and this probably represents the full complement of finished works; around half of these are known today. Since he left England in July 1837 for a new life in Rome, he did not need to return to his English sketches, which represent something of a dead end. Lear’s work did bring him back to England in the next fifty years, his last visit being in 1880, but the visits were always in connection with the marketing of his foreign work, and after 1837 he never again concentrated on painting English landscapes.
The drawings in this series include: Grasmere from Red Bank
Crummock Water and Mellbreak
The Head of Buttermere, with Honister Crag, Fleetwith Pike and Haystacks
Distant View of Wasdale Head with Yewbarrow, Great Gable and Lingmell
Bassenthwaite: View from near Armathwaite
The Trust has 3 drawings made the year after his Lake District tour: Loweswater
A View to the North from Birkrigg, Furness, Lancashire
Ullswater from Gowbarrow Park
VSIT TO PLYMOUTH - JUNE to JULY 1837
Lear’s final visit before leaving for Italy was to the family of Phipps Hornby at Bovisand near Plymouth. Captain Phipps Hornby (1785-1867) was a cousin and brother-in-law of Lear’s patron, the Earl of Derby; he later became an Admiral and was knighted. Lear presumably knew the Phipps Hornbys from his many visits to Lancashire, and seems to have been intimate with all the family. Lear arrived in Plymouth on 19 June and left for London, probably on 6 July. The visit is quite fully recorded by the combination of a letter of 8 July (Frederick Warne Archive) and the contents of an album of drawings in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (E.752-788.1939). An inscription, now separately mounted and reading “The Book of Bovisand / from Edward Lear / To Capn. & Mrs Hornby / & their family” records the gift of the album of drawing to the Hornbys. The drawings, some of which are dated between 21 June and 6 July, show either figures (presumably members of the Phipps Hornby family), coastal scenes, or views in the Plymouth area. Apart from hiking expeditions up the Plym on 23 June and the Tamar on 30 June, Lear stayed on the Bovisand side (i.e. the east) of Plymouth Sound. The Wordsworth Trust’s two drawings of Morwell Rocks, both dated 30 June 1837, both relate to a hiking trip up the Tamar that day. Another similar drawing of the river dated 30 June is in the Bovisand album (E.777.1939). Altogether there are five drawings in the album dated 30 June; two of them depict groups of ladies with their skirts pulled up for paddling, showing that this was trip for all the family, while a third shows the Tudor manor house of Cotehele (now National Trust), which was probably the ultimate goal of the day trip: Morwell Rocks on the Tamar
Morwell Rocks on the River Tamar
The Trust also has 2 drawings wrongly attributed to Lear: Grasmere