Edward Lear, the great illustrator and creator of ‘nonsense’ poems, was born 200 years ago today, the day after, in fact, the assassination of Spencer Perceval (see previous story). Though best known for his poetry - such as The Owl and Pussycat - and limericks, he was a very capable landscape painter and a diligent diarist, and loved to employ both talents when travelling. Much of Lear’s diary material is available online: four years worth of daily extracts have recently been published as a web blog exactly 150 years after they were written; and three highly illustrated travel journals, published in Lear’s lifetime, are available at Internet Archive.
Lear was born in Highgate, near London, on 12 May 1812 - the 20th child of Jeremiah Lear, a stockbroker, and his wife Ann. From a young age, he was looked after by a much older sister, and from 15, he was already able to earn a living by drawing. In 1831, he was employed by the Zoological Society of London, and a year later published a large-scale book of his coloured drawings of parrots.
Still as a young man, Lear worked for the British Museum, and also lived at Knowsley, Derbyshire, where he made illustrations of the Earl of Derby’s private menagerie. It was for the Earl’s grandchildren that he first wrote Book of Nonsense, which became a children’s classic. By the mid-1830s, he was turning his artistic talent to landscape painting, since this was less taxing on his eyesight.
Lear suffered all his life from epilepsy, and never robust, after 1837, lived mostly abroad, firstly in Rome, and later in Corfu and Malta before settling (with his cat Foss) in San Remo on the Italian coast, close to the border with France. These years saw him publish various travel books; and, in the 1870s, he produced more ‘Nonsense’ books (including Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets which contains the famous Owl and the Pussy Cat rhyme).
Lear died in 1888 (having never married). Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, The Victorian Web, or A Blog of Bosh, an extensive website devoted to Lear which also has a list of bicentenary events.
There are thirty extant volumes of Lear’s diaries covering the second part of his life, from 1858 to 1887. All are housed in the Houghton Library, Harvard University. However, Lear himself refers to ‘60’ volumes and to the fact that he kept journals during his Knowsley years, but later destroyed them. During his lifetime, Richard Bentley published three books based on journals Lear kept while travelling. Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania &c. came out in 1851, and this was followed a year later by Journals of a Landscape Painter in Southern Calabria &c. Twenty years on, in 1870, Robert John Bush published Journal of a Landscape Painter in Corsica. All of these titles are freely available at Internet Archive.
It was not until 1952, that any more of Lear’s diaries appeared in print: Journals : A Selection was edited by Herbert Van Thal and published by A. Barker. The following year, Jarrolds brought out Indian Journal (edited by Ray Murphy). It would be another 30 years before Denise Harvey published The Cretan Journal (edited by Rowena Fowler).
Otherwise, several years worth of Lear’s diaries have been published online, as a blog, each day’s entry exactly 150 years after it was written. The blog was started in 2008 - the diaries were painstakingly transcribed from the Houghton Library archive by Marco Graziosi - and the intention was to finish today, on Lear’s 50th birthday. It appears, however, as though the transcribing process is continuing beyond the targeted four years on this Wordpress site.
Lear wrote his diary at some length, especially when travelling - indeed, one wonders how he had time to paint when he was writing so much. Here are two entries. The first (taken from the blog mentioned above) is from his 50th birthday, i.e. 150 years ago today, when he was in Corfu. (I have replaced several phrases in Greek with their English translations, as given by Graziosi in footnotes, in square brackets.) The second extract is from Journal of a Landscape Painter in Corsica.
Monday, 12 May 1862
‘My 50th birthday. Rose at 4.20: - off by 5.15.
Long winding paths through olive groves: then dips & struggles with quite wild places, stuffed with all sorts of underwood, the old olives growing tangly all about. Frogs there were also, & rushes. A man passing, & asked the way to Sparterò - said - [Why do you want to go to my village?] I shall not tell you.” - Small miserable collection of huts are Nicori, Palaiocori, & Βαστάτινα, & I see no fun in going back by them: so having drawn the Northern distance above the last village but one - Dragolenà, & great groups of vast olives higher up - we arrived at Σπαρτηρῖο, 20 little houses scattered here & there; [goats], & rayther wretched: - the people only half polite. Nevertheless there is superb scenery all about the place. We took a boy to guide us to Ἅ. Προκόπιος - (the best place to pass the rest of the day in,) - ever winding paths, thro’ thickets, a few scared cattle. A church (in a wilderness,) & thus by 10 - or 10.30 - reached the groves of the Holy Προκόπιος. Lunched & drew in the wide grove till 1: nothing but a very elaborate study of this wood - even if that, - could convey an idea of this beautiful place: - the quiet, warmth, & semishade are delightful. The Elements - trees, clouds, &c. - silence - [All of nature that is] - seem to have far more part with me or I with them, than mankind. After death perhaps I shall be a tree - a cloud - a cabbage - or silence in the next world: but most possibly an ass. In these Προκόπιαν holy glades are but 3 very manifold colors, - the warm pale green of the floor - with long shades: - the gray uniform freckly shimmer of the roof: & the dark brown gray of the supporting pillar trunx. At 1, or 1.30 - into the Monastery, & drew till 3 - awfully tortured by fleas, & obliged to stand in the sun all the time. As soon as I got to the sea I bathed - killing 11 fleas first. At 6. Reached the Casa [Curì]: paid Dimitri 2 dollars [. . .] - 7.30 dinner - [very much too much], & I was horribly bored by a flea!
Bed by 10.15.
Kindly good folk.’
21 April 1868
‘6 a.m. - After drawing an outline of the mountains, I am picked up by Peter, G., and the trap. After three days’ stay (and I could willingly remain here for as many weeks; for what have I seen of the upper valley or the opposite hills?) I leave Sartene, and can bear witness to the good fare, moderate charges, and constant wish to oblige of Fatima, padrona of the Hotel d’ltalie. Poor Fatima, rumour says, is forsaken by her husband, and “dwells alone upon the hill of storms,” as in the literal sense of the expression Sartene must certainly be, for it is exposed to all the winds of heaven, and from its great elevation must needs be bitterly cold in winter.
Just above the town, where the high road to Bonifacio passes the Capuchin convent, there is the finest view of Sartene and the mountains; the whole town stands out in a grand mass from the valley and heights, and there is something rough and feudal in its dark houses that places its architecture far above that of Ajaccio in a picturesque sense. But to halt for drawing now is not to be thought of, inasmuch as this day’s journey to Bonifacio is not only a long one, but because in the whole distance (some fifty-three kilometres, or thirty-two miles) there is only a single wayside house, where the horses are to bait, yet where humanity, expecting food, would be severely disappointed. Hearing which, the Suliot has taken care to pack the old Coliseum sack with food for the day.
How grand at this hour is the broad light and shade of these mountains valleys! (notwithstanding that such as leave their houses at ten or eleven A.M. complain of “want of chiaroscuro in the south.”) How curious are the chapel-tombs, so oddly and picturesquely placed, and frequently so tasteful in design, gleaming among the rocks and hanging woods! At first, after leaving Sartene, the road passes through splendid woods of clustering ilex, and then begins to descend by opener country, shallower green vales and scattered granite tors or boulders, here and there passing plots of cultivation, and ever farther away from the high central mountains of the island. Now the distance sweeps down to lower hills, all clothed in deep green “maquis,” and at every curve of the road are endless pictures of gray granite rocks and wild olive.
While I am thinking how pleasant it would be to get studies of this very peculiar scenery, by living at Sartene, and walking seven or eight miles daily, Peter suddenly halts below the village of Giunchetto, which stands high above the road. “What is the matter?” says G.; but Peter only points to the village and crosses himself, and looks round at me. “What has happened?” I repeat. Peter whispers, “In that village a priest has lately died, and without confessing himself.” In the midst of visions of landscape - “What,” as Charles XII said to his secretary, “What has this bomb to do with what I am dictating?”
Farther on, near the eleventh kilometre, are some enormous granite blocks, with two or three stone huts by the road-side, and then follows a steep descent to the valley of the Ortola; looking back, you see a world of mist-folded mountains in the north-east, while ahead are “maquis,” and cystus carpets, sown with myriads of star-twinkling white flowers, broom, and purple lavender. The descent to the Ortola valley abounds with beauty, and by its verdure reminds me of more than one Yorkshire dale - here, instead of the oak or ash, depths of aged evergreen oak and gray-branched cork-trees, shading pastures and fern.
At 8, the river, a shallow stream, is crossed by a three-arched bridge; and here, near a solitary stone hut, are a few cattle and some peculiarly hideous pigs - the only living things seen since I left Sartene. Then, at the eighteenth kilometre, an ascent on the south side of the valley brings me in sight of the long point and tower of Cape Roccaspina and of the broad sea, above which I halt at 9 A.M., for the great Lion of Roccaspina may not be passed without getting a sketch of it. And, truly, it is a remarkable object - an immense mass of granite perfectly resembling a crowned lion, placed on a lofty ledge of the promontory, and surrounded by bare and rugged rocks.
The road now becomes a regular cornice coast-way, alternately descending and rising, always broad and good, and well protected by parapets; long spurs of rock jut out into the sea beyond odorous slopes of myrtle and cystus, while in some parts enormous blocks and walls of granite form the left side of the picture. Presently the road diverges more inland, and is carried through wild and lonely tracts of “maquis,” varied by patches of corn at intervals, and recalling the valleys of Philistia when you begin to ascend towards the Judaean hills from the plains near Eleutheropolis. Two flocks of goats - of course, black - and a few black sheep and pigs, who emulate the appearance of wild boars, with one man and one boy, are the living objects which a distant hamlet (I think Monaccia) contributes to the life of the scene. Occasionally glimpses of the distant sea occur; but, as far as eye can reach, the wild green unbroken “maquis” spreads away on every side.
At 10.30 “half our mournful task is done,” and the mid-day halt at a house (one of some six or seven by the wayside) is reached. The appearance of these dwellings is very poor and wretched; and a gendarme informs me that from the end of May till November they are all deserted, so unwholesome is the air of this district; and that the few peasants at present here go up at that season to the villages of Piannattoli or Caldarello - small clusters of houses higher up on the hill-side. How little cheerful the aspect of this part of the island must be then, one may imagine from what it is even in its inhabited condition.
On a rising ground close by are some of those vast isolated rocks which characterise this southern coast of Corsica - a good spot whereat to halt for Fatima’s breakfast. Looking southward, green lines of campagna stretch out into what is the first semblance of a plain that I have seen in this island, and which is exceedingly like portions of Syrian landscape. It was worth while to get a drawing of this, and I would willingly have stayed longer, but at 1 P.M. it is time to start again.
The road continues across comparatively low ground by undulating inequalities, through wide “maquis”-dotted tracts, where here and there the tall giant-hemlock is a new feature in the more moist parts of the ground. Twice we descend to the sea at inlets or small creeks - Figari and Ventilegne - in each case passing the stream which they receive by a bridge, and at these points marshes and “still salt pools” show the malarious nature of the district. Nor does the landscape painter fail to rejoice that he has chosen this method of “seeing all Corsica,” and that he is able to drive rapidly over this part of it, where there is no need of halt for drawing, for the higher mountains are far away from the south of the island, and the hills nearer the coast stretch seaward with a persistent and impracticable length of line not to be reduced to agreeable pictorial proportion. Once only, at 3 P.M., about seven kilometres from Bonifacio, I stop to draw, more to obtain a record of the topographic character of the south-west coast than for the sake of any beauty of scenery, of which the long spiky promontories hereabouts possess but little, although there is a certain grace in some of those slender points running far out into the blue water, and, though far inland, you may at times catch a glimpse of some heights of varied form; yet, be your drawing never so long or narrow, the length of the whole scene is with difficulty to be compressed within its limits.
At 3.30 I send on Peter and the trap to Bonifacio, and walk, for so many hours of sitting still in a carriage cramps limbs and head. As the hills, from the ascent to which I had made my last drawing, are left behind, Bonifacio, the Pisan or Genoese city, becomes visible; extreme whiteness, cliffs as chalky as those of Dover, and a sort of Maltese look of fortified lines are the apparent characters at this distance of a city so full of interest and history. Opposite, towards the south, a thick haze continues to hide the coast of Sardinia, and this has been no light drawback to the day’s journey, since the sight of remote mountains and the blue straits would have gone far to relieve the “maquis” monotony, driving through which has occupied so much of the time passed between Sartene and Bonifacio.
Meanwhile a space of three or four miles has to be done on foot, shut out from all distant view, as well as very uninteresting in its chalky white dryness of road, about which the only features are walls, with olives all bent to the north-east, and eloquently speaking of the force of the south-west wind along this coast. But at 4.30 P.M. fields of tall corn and long-armed olives replace this ugliness, and the road descends to a deep winding gorge or valley, closely sheltered and full of luxuriant vegetation, olive, almond, and fig. After the boulders and crags of granite, which up to this time have been the foregrounds in my Corsican journey, a new world seems to be entered on coming to this deep hollow (where a stream apparently should run, but does not), for its sides are high cliffs of cretaceous formation, pale, crenelated, and with cavernous ledges, and loaded with vegetation.
At 5 P.M. the road abruptly reaches the remarkable port of Bonifacio, which forms one of the most delightful and striking pictures possible. Terminating a winding and narrow arm of the sea, or channel, the nearer part of which you see between overhanging cliffs of the strangest form, it is completely shut in on all sides, that opposite the road by which alone you can reach it being formed by the great rock on which the old fortress and city are built, and which to the south is a sheer precipice to the sea, or rather (even in some parts of it visible from the harbour) actually projecting above it. At the foot of this fort-rock lies a semicircle of suburban buildings at the water’s edge, with a church, and a broad flight of shallow steps leading up to the top of this curious peninsular stronghold; all these combine in a most perfect little scene, now lit up by the rays of the afternoon sun, and which I lose no time in drawing.
A broad and good carriage road leads up to the city, huge grim walls enclose it, and before you enter them you become aware how narrow is the little isthmus that joins the rock-site of Bonifacio to the main land; from a small level space close below the fort you see the opposite coast of Sardinia, and you look down perpendicularly into the blue straits which divide the two islands. Very narrow streets conduct from the fortifications to the inner town; the houses are lofty and crowded, and Bonifacio evidently possesses the full share of inconveniences natural to garrison towns of limited extent, with somewhat of the neglected and unprepossessing look of many southern streets and habitations. There was no difficulty in finding the Widow Carreghi’s hotel, but its exterior and entrance were, it must be owned, not a little dismal, and the staircase, steep, narrow, wooden, dark, dirty, and difficult, leading to the inn rooms on the third floor, was such as a climbing South American monkey might have rejoiced in. Nevertheless, once safe at the top of this ladder-like climb there are several little and very tolerably habitable rooms; and, as seems to be invariably the rule as to Corsican hostesses, the two here are very obliging and anxious to please.
There was yet time to walk through the town, which I was surprised to find so extensive and populous. Some of the churches are ancient, and near the end of the rock (though the lateness of the hour, together with a powder magazine and obstructive sentry, prevented my getting quite to its extremity) a considerable plateau with barracks and other public buildings exists, and I can well imagine some days might be spent with great interest in this ancient place. As it was, I could but make a slight drawing from the edge of the precipice looking up to the harbour or sea-inlet, but from such examination it was evident that the most characteristic view of this singular and picturesque place must be made from the opposite side of the narrow channel, though it does not appear how, except by boat, such a point can be reached.
Bonifacio is doubtless a most striking place and full of subjects for painting; the bright chalky white of the rocks on which it stands, the deep green vegetation, and the dark gulf below it, add surprising contrasts of colour to the general effect of its remarkable position and outline. Returning to the Widow Carreghi’s hotel, confusion prevailed throughout that establishment, owing to its being crowded at this hour by, not only the officers of the garrison, who take their food there, but an additional host of official civilians, gendarmerie, &c, to-morrow being a day of great excitement, on account of the conscription taking place, in consequence of which event the Sous-prefet is here from Sartene, with numerous other dignitaries.
It was not wonderful that the two obliging women, who seemed joint hostesses, were somewhat “dazed” by the unbounded noise in the small and overfull rooms; nevertheless, they got a very good supper for me and my man, only apologising continually that “le circonstanze” of the full house, and of the late hour at which I had arrived, prevented their offering more food and in greater comfort and quiet. Everybody seemed to be aware that I was a travelling painter, and all proffered to show me this or that; the Sous-prefet, they said, had gone out to meet me, and the Mayor, for whom I have left a card and a letter from M. Galloni d’Istria (he lives in the Carreghi house), would come and see me to-morrow. Another of the persons at the table gave me his address at Casabianda, and begged that, if I should come there, he might show me the ruins of Aleria. The whole party, “continentals” and “insulaires,” were full of civility.
All night long there was singing and great noise in the streets, so that in spite of my camp-bed very little sleep was attainable.’