Edward Lear, The Monastery of Agios Pavlos, Mount Athos

Edward Lear, The Monastery of Agios Pavlos, Mount Athos.
Inscribed in Greek ‘Saint Paul’, and dated ‘9.10. Sept./ 1856’ (lower right) and extensively inscribed with colour notes throughout. Pencil, pen and brown ink and watercolour, on buff paper. 21 ¼ x 14 7/8 in. (54 x 37.8 cm.).

First documented in 972 AD and dedicated to Christ the Saviour, the monastery of St Paul was founded on the western side of Mount Athos. It is ranked 14th in the hierarchy of Mont Athos.

Provenance

Charles Church, a gift from the artist; and by descent to
Mary Church, given by her to
Canon John McLeod Campbell Crum and by descent to
Miss Margaret Crum; Sotheby’s, London, 12 March, 1987, lot 93.
with Agnew’s, London, where purchased by the present owner.

Description

Property from a Private European Collection (lots 120-125)

Between 1853 and 1868, Lear spent the years travelling throughout the Mediterranean. He had attempted to visit Mount Athos, in 1848 and 1849 with Charles Church, but without success. He eventually arrived there in September 1856, when he spent three weeks travelling throughout the peninsular and managed to visit all twenty principal monasteries and most of their dependencies. The location provided him with the perfect subject matter; mediaeval architecture perched on the rocks of the Holy Mountain, on stark promontories overlooking the Aegean or sometimes almost hidden among secluded cypress groves and lush vegetation.

Lear produced numerous drawings which he intended to publish on his return to England and although this was never fulfilled, he did adapt several of his drawings for his series of illustrations to Tennyson’s poems in the 1880s. He also painted at least 10 oils of the area, based on his drawings, the most famous being his painting of Mount Athos with the Monastery of Stavroniketes, (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven).

His record of all of the monasteries on Mount Athos, must have been unique and he described them in a letter to Emily Tennyson as ‘very valuable’ (V. Noakes, Edward Lear, selected letters, Oxford, 1988, p.138). That he did not pursue this project may have been in part due to his ambivalence to the monastic life, which he expressed in a letter to Chichester Fortescue, ‘However wondrous and picturesque the exterior & interior of the monasteries, & however abundantly & exquisitely glorious & stupendous the scenery of the mountain, I would not go again to Ayios Oros for any money, so gloomy, so shockingly unnatural, so lying, so unatonably odious seems to me the atmosphere of such monkery’ (Lady Strachey (ed.), Letters of Edward Lear, London, 1907, p. 41).

Despite his feelings about monastic life and the isolation of the inhabitants of the ‘Holy Mountain’, Lear was received warmly wherever he went and found the landscape and architecture beautiful. He captured the approach to Mount Athos in a letter to his sister Ann, ‘one crosses a ridge of hills, whence Mount Athos is first discovered – a blue peak on a bluer sea – seen above the most wondrous forests of beech I ever beheld. Nothing did I ever behold more lovely than those views’. As he crossed to the isthmus, the path became ‘most toilsome through the wildest and grandest forest scenery – from which every now and then you looked out on such screens and depths of green wood as would astonish those who talk of England as having more trees than other countries’.

Exhibited

London, Fine Art Society, Edward Lear, A Centenary Exhibition, June 1988.
Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, Happy Birthday Mr Lear. 200 Years of Nature and Nonsense, September 2012 – January 2013, unnumbered.

Christie’s.

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