Edward Lear, View of Ohrid, Macedonia (1848)


Edward Lear, View of Ohrid, Macedonia.
Signed with monogram, inscribed and dated ‘Akridha 1848’ (lower right). Watercolour, bodycolour and gum arabic over pencil. 11.5 x 17.8cm (4 1/2 x 7in).


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Edward Lear, San Sabbas (1859)


Edward Lear, San Sabbas.
Signed with initials, inscribed and dated ‘San Sabbas/1859’ (lower right). Pen, ink and sepia wash. 20.5 x 30.5cm (8 x 12in).


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Edward Lear, Cefalu, Sicily


Edward Lear, Cefalu, Sicily.
Signed with monogram (lower left). Watercolour. 11.5 x 18cm (4 1/2 x 7 1/16in).

Lear visited Sicily on two occasions: in the Spring of 1842 and in the early summer of 1847; in the later visit he travelled with John Joshua Proby (1780-1855), who Lear later discovered was heir to the Earl of Carysfort.


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Edward Lear, Plain of Argos from Mycene (1879)


Edward Lear, Plain of Argos from Mycenae.
Signed with monogram and dated 1879 (lower left), inscribed ‘Argos from Mycenae/1849 (lower right), also titled beneath mount. Watercolour. 29 x 52.5cm (11 7/16 x 20 11/16in).

The present lot is one of a number of similar views that Lear produced from sketches made during a trip to Argos in the spring of 1849. Executed in 1879, it predates a watercolour of the same subject, 10 ¼ x 20 ½ in., which was sold at Christie’s London, 30 March 1993, lot 84 (this may be the work acquired by the Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin in the same year, although that work is listed as being 19 x 28 in., in the Museum’s records), as well as a large oil of the same subject, 31 ½ x 64in., now in the collection of Trinity College, Cambridge, which was painted in 1884.

Charles Church, later the Dean of Wells, met Lear in 1847; the two men were to become lifelong friends, and Church amassed a considerable collection of his Lear’s work. They embarked on a tour of the Peloponnese in the autumn of 1848, Church acting as guide and interpreter. The trip was a litany of misfortune; firstly, Lear fell from his horse, badly injuring himself, then he had a severe reaction to an insect bite which made him seriously ill; once he recovered, Lear planned to meet up with Church to visit Mount Athos, but the area was closed to travellers due to an outbreak of cholera.

Lear returned to Greece in the spring of 1849, with another great friend, Frank Lushington, a trip that the artist remembered with great fondness, describing, in a letter to his sister ‘a mile of bright scarlet ground. Then half a mile of blue or pale pink… the whole earth is like a rich Turkey carpet.’


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Edward Lear’s Diaries Blog News


Tomorrow I will resume posting Edward Lear’s diaries from the date I stopped over a year ago.

I will try to publish two-three entries a day until I reach the end of 1865, at which point Lear will be in Malta: the journal for that period is available in John Varriano’s book, so I will skip it. I expect to be able to begin posting day by day at a 150-year interval again by the summer.

In the next few days Lear will be going on a tour of the French and Italian Riviera and as some of the watercolours for the trip are available on the Houghton Library website, the posts will also be “illustrated.”

I hope you will enjoy the blog and look forward to reading your comments.

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Edward Lear in Malta

I wrote the review below exactly one year ago for a newsletter of the Edward Lear Society that never appeared. Even though it is too late to visit the exhibition, you may still be able to order the book: it contains the full text (but not the dinner-table maps) of Edward Lear’s diary during his 1865-1866 stay in Malta.

I take this opportunity to announce that I will be resuming posting the Diaries in the next two or three days: since they are available in Varriano’s book until the end of March 1866, I’ll try to cover the missing months, from November 1864 (when I had to stop) to December 1865, and hopefully will resume the 150-year delayed publishing at the beginning of next April.


Since the success of the 2009 exhibition on Edward Lear’s tours of Ireland and the Lakes in 1835 and 1836, held in the Wordsworth Museum in Grasmere, The Lake District, in north-west England, studies on Lear as an artist have tended to focus on his visits to specific locations. Sometimes Lear’s name has been used as a basis for a discussion of the history of an area and the conditions of its inhabitants around the time of the painter’s tour, as for instance in Giuseppe Macrì’s recent Il tempo, il viaggio e lo spirito negli inediti di Edward Lear in Calabria (Reggio Calabria: Laruffa, 2012).

This is not the case with John Varriano’s  excellent volume on Edward Lear in Malta, whose publication by the Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti was timed to coincide with the opening of an exhibition of Lear’s Maltese watercolours at Palazzo Falson from 18 October 2014 to 4 January 2015: Edward Lear: Watercolours and Words. The book provides a list of all known pictures painted by Lear while on the island, with well-printed, though generally rather small reproductions of those the author was able to locate. The catalogue is organized around extensive transcriptions of relevant passages from Lear’s letters and diaries, although it seems Varriano did not have access to Lear’s unpublished letters to his sister Ann and so missed some relating to Malta. The checklist at the end of the book, which follows Lear’s own numbering, includes over 300 items, many of which cannot be located or identified at present.

Varriano’s “Introduction” is especially skilful in the formal analysis of Lear’s plein air drawings. The watercolours are discussed in the context of the production of other painters working in Malta at the same time ― Michele Bellanti and Giovanni Schranz ― as well as in relation to the tradition of Samuel Prout’s and David Roberts’s “tinted drawings,” in which “the line typically defines formal boundaries with the colour washes remaining secondary.”  More questionable is perhaps Varriano’s definition of James Duffield Harding as a painter who “followed in his [Lear’s] steps,” when Lear is known to have been deeply influenced by Duffield’s manual, Elementary Art; or, the Use of the Lead Pencil Advocated and Explained (1834). However, it would certainly be hard to take issue with the author’s conclusion that Lear’s watercolours “remain a unique hybrid of the Romantic sensibility that attracted him to the poetics of Tennyson, and the earlier, more clear-headed English documentary tradition.”

The introduction also provides an overview of Lear’s visits to Malta, listing a total of seven, most of them just for a few days while sailing to other destinations. Varriano misses the eighth, on 14 December 1866: while he was on his way to Egypt, Lear only stayed an afternoon, but it was quite busy according to the diary entry:

 […] 10. walk deck, Lovely morning. 11. Gozo in full sight. Odd indeed to see places, formerly so uninteresting, now so accurately known, Nadur, Rabats [sic] &c. (Short parenthetical  lunch ― Captn. Guning ― Mrs. G. Sutton’s nephew.) ― & lo! the Sliéma House! ― At 1.30 in harbour, & shortly in a boat & up to palace with one box & hat box. Weather ever lovely. Paolo. Peel ― fat & well. Legh, Major Deedes. At 3, with Peel to Genl. Ridleys ― “same one good soul.” Then P. & I walked out, & I called on H.T. Williams ― (out) ― Lady Houlton (Mrs. Xtian there ― all piny whiny ―) Mrs. Legh ― & Mrs. Goodeve, & Goff. Back at Palace by 6. Mrs. Williams amiably came. As I returned, it rained but I trust, no change of wind. Bowden came, a plenum. At 7. Peel. 7.30 ― Legh & Deedes ― dinner ― which the dinner & champagne ― O! Deedes is a nice kindly sort of man, but poor dear Leghs arguments! At 11 ― John Peel the good & kindly would see me to the boat, & Giuseppe the seal with a big coat ― into the ship. J. Peel is one of a 1000 ― & I grieve to see him only for a moment & no more. Yet, ἒτζι εἶναι [so it is]. ― Now that I am in this vast silent ship at midnight, how strange does this short Parenthesis of Malta life seem!

We also have John Peel’s version of this visit in a letter of 23 February 1867 to his younger brother Archibald, a good friend of Lear’s; the painter is presented in one of his dark moods, though ready to appreciate that champagne:

 Edwin [sic] Lear, when he passed through, dined with me; he was as usual somewhat melancholy, and foretold the death of his remaining relatives, several in number and his own total blindness and impecuniosity like Micawber; however he brightened up, and concealed a good deal of liquor about his person, he is now up the Nile, and I owe him a letter. (Recollections of Lady Georgiana Peel; Compiled by Her Daughter Ethel Peel. London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1920. 239)

Peel had been Assistant Military Secretary to Sir Henry Storks, Governor of Malta since November 1864 and the real reason ― together with his A.D.C. Evelyn Baring ― behind Lear’s decision to spend the 1865-66 winter there. Unfortunately, “Sir Storky” and Baring had sailed to Jamaica to investigate the conduct of the Governor, John Eyre, two days before Lear’s arrival on 9 December 1865: “No greater bore could have occurred,” he wrote in his diary.

Lear had never really liked Malta, even though this was where, in February 1849, he first met Franklin Lushington ― to whom he would be deeply attached all his life ― and the 1865-66 stay only confirmed his first impression, as it had been expressed in a long unpublished letter to his sister Ann:

 Dumford’s Hotel, Valletta, Malta
April 9th., 1848.
My Dear Ann,
[…] Malta itself, is an island all over rock & sand & a little soil, & crammed in every crevice with people & houses. Valetta [sic] is the city ― but somehow one never thinks of any other name than Malta. Such a strange place as Valetta I certainly never did see ― & as a town it is perhaps as beautiful as any existing. The houses all look as if built yesterday ― of a beautiful cream coloured stone, with green or white or painted balconies stuck about in every possible corner. The streets have all capital trottoirs, & there is no dirt to be seen. […] All round the town & two harbours the lines of fortifications are most surprising ― you walk in labyrinths, & when you have got outside, it begins all over & over & over again. ― Zig zag ― zig zag ― up stairs & down stairs ― sharp corners & half moons, moats, drawbridges, bastions & towers till you feel as if built up in Valetta for life. As for the country, there is none; stone walls & stone houses & stone terraces for miles, & villages as far as you can see ― so that you may say that all Malta is a great heap of stone in the Mediterranean with a little ground here & there for cultivation. […] (Full letter.)

His next letter to Ann, of 19 April ― from which Varriano quotes ― is probably the best expression of Lear’s contradictory feelings on Malta: “I cannot remember to have left any place with so much regret after so short a stay in it … But I could not live at Malta ― there is hardly a bit of green in the whole island ― a hot sandstone, wall, & bright white houses are all you can see from the highest places…”

John Varriano’s book is a welcome addition to a growing body of literature dealing with Edward Lear’s travels and, notwithstanding some omissions, will no doubt remain the standard treatment of his connection to Malta for several years.

On Lear and Malta here at the Blog of Bosh, and recently: Edward Lear in Gozo.

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The Beatles and Edward Lear

Paperback writer

The first sign of the metamorphosis that was under way in the Beatles’ music came on the group’s first single of 1966, “Paperback Writer” b/w “Rain,” a record that recalled “Can’t Buy Me Love” b/w “You Can’t Do That” in its pairing of songs that matched sharp distinctions of style with close similarities of form. Paul McCartney’s “Paperback Writer” was a satire of pop ambition in the style of “Drive My Car,” set like its predecessor in a musical context of relentless simplicity. Instead of a melody that clamors on one note, the song has a harmony that clamors on one chord, confining itself to long stretches on the tonic relieved by brief forays to the subdominant. This going-nowhere chord progression suggests a harmonic metaphor for unfulfillment that jibes with the lyrics of the song.

Like its budding author-narrator, “Paperback Writer” tries to make the most of its meager resources by heaping an elaborate arrangement on its simple harmonic frame. In the introduction, the song title is triplicated in an a cappella chorale that has Paul, John, and George staggering their entrances like children singing rounds. Their voices invert in a cascade of “writer, writer, writer” as the singers complete their lines, whereupon Ringo comes bolting out of the gate with a beat of almost comic intensity behind a driving, harshly distorted figure on guitar. “Son of Day Tripper” was how Lennon described the song, but the lyric is much wittier than that of the earlier single. There’s a wealth of satiric nuance in the formality of the author’s query on behalf of his “dirty story” with its thinly fictionalized plot and its obsessive dimensions (“a thousand pages give or take a few”). The mangled reference to “a novel by a man named Lear” sounds like a dig at Lennon, whose own paperback writings had drawn comparisons with Edward Lear. But the butt of the joke rests firmly with McCartney himself. He, after all, was the one who wrote the query letters back in the days of the Quarry Men and the Silver Beatles, soliciting work for the band in his most affected grammar-school prose. And the tight fit between the singer and his character helps to drain the condescension from the song. When Paul exclaims the words “Paperback Writer” at the end of every verse, he brings a starry-eyed reverence to this dubious occupational title that almost stands up to the punning counterpoint of “Pay-per-back-er” (sung to the tune of “Frère Jacques”) that John and George provide.

If the words and music of “Paperback Writer” could be said to capture some of the spirit of London in 1966, enlivened by people from all stations of society on the move and on the make, then John Lennon’s “Rain” on the flip side of the single captured the dreamy private languor that formed the flip side of the city’s “swinging” scene. The two tracks are similar in the simplicity of their chord progressions and the fullness of their sound, but the rhythm of “Rain” feels enervated, and the accompaniment eschews the clipped, Mod-like precision of “Paperback Writer” for a more impressionistic wash. Where the one track is a line drawing, the other is a blurry pastel.

In keeping with the allusion to Edward Lear on McCartney’s side of the single, the they who run and hide from the weather in Lennon’s song, the they who “might as well be dead,” resemble the they of Lear’s limericks: “the realists, the practical men, the sober citizens in bowler hats who are always anxious to stop you doing anything worth doing,” as George Orwell once described Them. “Rain” is a postcard from Weybridge, a subversive salutation from the heart of the stockbroker belt. The lyric is more overtly imagistic than in any previous Beatles song, with “rain” and “shine” juxtaposed as mere “states of mind” in a meteorological yin and yang. The accompaniment is more imagistic as well, dominated by droning guitars, long rolls from the drums that rattle through the verses, and lush choral singing in the bridge that fills the air with melismatic sheets of sound: “Ra-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ain—I don’t mind! Shi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-ine—the weather’s fine!” Another novel element is the treatment of Lennon’s voice, lispy with treble and thickly double-tracked, which seems to be strained through the soup of drums and guitars. “Can you hear me?” John asks in the song’s last intelligible line, introducing a coda in which the drumrolls and the choral voices mingle with an audio hallucination created by rerecording the vocal track backwards. The result is a stream of apparent gibberish that retains the form of speech but reverses the shape of its acoustic “envelope” in a way that suggests another dimension in which time and meaning have turned around.

[Gould, Jonathan. Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America. New York: Harmony Books, 2007. 325-327.]


From its height of romantic rapture, Revolver next descends to the allegorical depths of the sea. Written by Paul, with help from John, expressly for Ringo to sing, “Yellow Submarine” is by all rights a children’s song, with simple words, simple chords, and a numbingly simple refrain. It is performed in a sing-along manner removed from the context of contemporary pop, sounding more like a throwback to an earlier era of participatory music-making that atrophied—among adults, at any rate—in the era of records and radio. Yet its simplicity and childishness are deceptive, for nothing the Beatles had recorded to date was more dependent on technological sleight-of-hand. “Yellow Submarine” is a simple song transformed by the wonders of multitrack technology into a sophisticated sonic pastiche. In 1966 it stood as a cockeyed monument to the whole self-sufficient and self-absorbed existence the Beatles were creating for themselves at Abbey Road. Sung by anyone else above the age of thirteen, it would have smacked of deliberate camp. But Ringo lacked the vocal resources to be anything but guileless, and he brought to the song the same deadpan quality he brought to the Beatles’ films. In his hands the Yellow Submarine became a satirically updated version of the improbable craft in which Edward Lear put his characters to sea—the Owl and the Pussycat’s pea-green boat, the Jumblies’ unsinkable sieve.

Like “Norwegian Wood,” the song begins by subverting the narrative cliché. “In the town where I was born, lived a man who sailed to sea,” Ringo drones over the strum of an acoustic guitar, “And he told us of his life, in the land of submarines.” Like all good nonsense, the lyrics to the world’s first undersea shanty are based on a single incongruity, taken to its logical extreme: men have been sailing to sea in songs like this for centuries, but not in submarines. The second verse is accompanied by the frothing of the ocean, closing in overhead, while the third competes with a hubbub of conversation, clinking glassware, and jovial bonhomie: “And our friends are all aboard, many more of them live next door / And the band begins to play….” Whereupon a full brass band does just that, shattering the calm of this polite gathering with two bars of booming oompah, which is just enough to conjure the image of tubas in a submarine. Between verses, Ringo stands at the head of a sailors’ chorus, chanting the refrain. There’s also a solo, of sorts, composed entirely of sound effects drawn from the collective unconscious of a generation of schoolboys raised on films about the War Beneath the Seas. Valves squeak, pipes hiss, bells sound, hatches slam, and crisply garbled voices relay terse commands, until the song’s last verse is discharged from this Goonish concerto with the whoosh of a torpedo exiting its tube. Here Ringo is joined by John, who echoes each line in the strained, sardonic voice of an old vaudevillian with the crowd in the palm of his hand. John signs off with a maniacal laugh and the ship’s company falls in for the final refrain, which has taken on an aura of daffy sincerity like some old patriotic number, sung to the tramp-tramp-tramp of marching feet.

[Ibid. 355-356.]

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