Edward Lear is best remembered for his books of nonsense and for popularizing the limerick, but he was also a prolific watercolorist, who as a young man earned his livelihood and achieved recognition as an illustrator of birds and animals, and who later pictorially documented his many journeys throughout the Mediterranean and India.
Born in the north London suburb of Holloway on 12 May 1812, Lear was the youngest of twenty-one children born to Jeremiah and Ann Lear. His childhood was one of outward prosperity but in 1825, his father, a stockbroker, was ruined by a financial crisis brought on by unfortunate speculation. At the age of fifteen the young and somewhat sickly Edward had to start earning his own living. Initially, he tinted drawings of birds for shops and printsellers, also undertaking work for various hospitals and physicians. This training suited him well and by the age of eighteen he was already taking pupils of his own.
In 1830, Lear received permission to work as a draughtsman at the Zoological Society, and the following year moved with his sister, Ann, to lodgings in Albany Street, Regent's Park, in order to be close to his work. His first task was to make a record of the different members of the parrot family and he was encouraged in this task by N. A. Vigors, John Gould and Lord Stanley. Illustrations of the family Psittacidae appeared in parts between 1830 and 1832, when Lear abandoned it; however, it represents the first illustrated work of ornithology to be issued on such a scale in England, and immediately attracted much comment and was compared favorably to John James Audubon's Birds of America. The day after the first part of Illustrations of the family Psittacidae was published Lear was elected an associate of the Linnean Society.
During the years immediately following the publication, the collaboration that was probably to have the most lasting effect was with John Gould, who not only bought the remaining stock of Illustrations of the family Psittacidae but emulated the format in his own publications. Lear and Gould traveled together to the continent, visiting Holland, Switzerland, and Germany, while Lear contributed plates to Gould's Birds of Europe and Monograph of the Toucans and helped with the Monograph of the Trogonidae, but by this stage he did not feel able to produce finished plates.
After 1837, for reasons of health, Lear lived mainly in Italy and Corfu. On 31 October 1836 he wrote to Gould 'my eyes are so sadly worse, that no bird under an ostrich shall I soon be able to do'. When he felt himself no longer able to cope with the detailed work of bird illustration, he turned his talents to landscape and, in addition to producing a large quantity of drawings and watercolors, published several books of travel and topography covering Italy, Greece and Albania. He also produced a small number of highly wrought oil paintings, in which he treated landscape with the intensity of the Pre-Raphaelites, in emulation of his mentor William Holman Hunt (1827-1920).
Lear had considered visiting the Holy Land area in 1849 and again at the beginning of 1854, but it was only in 1858 that he undertook a three month tour, spurred by a commission from his friend and patron Lady Waldegrave to paint her a view of Jerusalem and another subject. Accompanied by his manservant Georgio Kokali, he arrived in Jerusalem on 28 March and, in spite of the crowds of Easter pilgrims, found it 'far more beautiful than [he] had expected.' On 2 April he left Jerusalem and traveled south to Bethlehem and Hebron, where he picked up an escort of fifteen men for the dangerous desert journey to Petra. They returned to Jerusalem via the Dead Sea and Masada, then went north to Jericho. Having failed to see Nazareth and Galilee, he returned yet again to Jerusalem and, after resting there for a few days, decided to go on to the Lebanon, arriving there on 11 May. He was thrilled by the famous cedars, so ancient and vast in scale, and was struck by the beauty of Damascus. As he wrote from the city on 27 May in a long letter to Lady Waldegrave: 'Imagine 16 worlds full of gardens rolled out flat, with a river & a glittering city in the middle - & you have a sort of idea of what the Damascus pianura is like.' (V. Noakes, Edward Lear, Glasgow, 1968, p159). It was to be the last site to engage his attention on the journey. The hottest season of the year had now begun, and two days later he left Damascus to return to Corfu.
The above watercolor is one of Lear's 'tyrants' which he painted as a group for his summer exhibitions during the 1860s. Lear presumably forgot the year of his trip to the Holy Land when completing this watercolor in 1864.