EDWARD LEAR (BRITISH, 1812-1888) The Campagna di Roma

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The Campagna di Roma signed with monogram (lower left); further signed, inscribed and dated 'The Campagna di Roma. Taken from the Quarries of Cerbara, looking/ South-East towards the Volscian Hills & Alban Mount./ Commenced by me from drawings made on the spot in 1859-1860 & completed/for Walter Congreve Esq. in 1871/ Edward Lear./ San Remo/ June 18.1871' (on a label on the reverse) oil on canvas 65 x 129.5cm (25 9/16 x 51in).


Commissioned directly from the artist by Walter Congreve Esq., San Remo.


Edward Lear, List of pictures painted, 1840-1877, no. 241, as Campagna di Roma. Quarries of Cerbara


Edward Lear travelled to Rome for the first time in December 1837, and he spent most of his time in the city until 1848, returning subsequently in the winters of 1859-60, 1871 and 1877. Each summer the artist would spend time exploring other parts of Italy. Lear started painting in oil in 1838. His compositions were mostly created in his studio starting from his travel sketchbooks.

The artist was fascinated by the beauty and force of nature that led him to create the most poetic of views and landscapes. Rome and its surroundings acted as a great source of inspiration for Lear and lead him to the creation of his first travel book, Views in Rome and its environs, published in 1841.

The present paintings were painted starting from sketches made by Lear on the spot in the tufa quarries of Cervara, east of Rome, during winter 1859-60. He wrote 'there is a charm about this Campagna when it becomes all purple & gold, which it is difficult to tear one's self from. Thus-climate & beauty of atmosphere regain their hold on the mind-pen & pencil'1

Lear’s brushwork reveals his command of the medium. He uses sweeping horizontal strokes to render the distant mountains with myriad lilacs and lavenders, and rich impasto to capture the texture of the rocks bathing in the golden Mediterranean light. Lear also explores the contrast of complementary colors alongside the contrast of light and shadow in the late afternoon. Rather than remaining studies of terrain, the canvases introduce typical Italian countryside figures — paesanos — that would have appealed to Congreve’s post-Grand-tour attitude toward the Continent.

Edward Lear was born into a middle-class family at Holloway, North London, the penultimate of twenty-one children (and youngest to survive) of Ann Clark Skerrett and Jeremiah Lear. He was brought up by his eldest sister, also named Ann, twenty-one years his senior. Owing to the family’s limited finances, Lear and his sister were required to leave the family home and live together when he was aged four. Ann doted on Edward and continued to act as a mother for him until her death, when he was almost fifty years of age.

Lear suffered from lifelong health afflictions. From the age of six he suffered frequent grand mal epileptic seizures, and bronchitis, asthma, and during later life, partial blindness. Lear experienced his first seizure at a fair near Highgate with his father. The event scared and embarrassed him. Lear felt lifelong guilt and shame for his epileptic condition. His adult diaries indicate that he always sensed the onset of a seizure in time to remove himself from public view. When Lear was about seven years old, he began to show signs of depression, possibly due to the instability of his childhood. He suffered from periods of severe melancholia which he referred to as “the Morbids.”
Lear was already drawing “for bread and cheese” by the time he was aged sixteen and soon developed into a serious “ornithological draughtsman” employed by the Zoological Society and then from 1832 to 1836 by the Earl of Derby, who kept a private menagerie at his estate, Knowsley Hall. He was the first major bird artist to draw birds from real live birds, instead of skins. Lear’s first publication, published when he was nineteen years old, was Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots in 1830. One of the greatest ornithological artists of his era, he taught Elizabeth Gould while also contributing to John Gould’s works and was compared favorably with John James Audubon.

In 1842, Lear began a journey into the Italian peninsula, traveling through the Lazio, Rome, Abruzzo, Molise, Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily. In personal notes, together with drawings, Lear gathered his impressions on the Italian way of life, folk traditions, and the beauty of the ancient monuments. He eventually settled in San Remo, on his beloved Mediterranean coast, in the 1870s, at a villa he named “Villa Tennyson.”

In 1846, Lear published A Book of Nonsense, a volume of limericks that went through three editions and helped popularize the form and the genre of literary nonsense. In 1871, he published Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets, which included his most famous nonsense song, “The Owl and the Pussycat,” which he wrote for the children of his patron Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby. Many other works followed.
Lear’s nonsense books were highly popular during his lifetime, but a rumor developed that “Edward Lear” was merely a pseudonym, and the books’ true author was the man to whom Lear had dedicated the works, his patron the Earl of Derby. Promoters of this rumor offered as evidence the facts that both men were named Edward, and that “Lear” is an anagram of “Earl.”

Lear’s nonsense works are distinguished by a facility of verbal invention and a poet’s delight in the sounds of words, both real and imaginary. A stuffed rhinoceros becomes a “diaphanous doorscraper.” A “blue Boss-Woss” plunges into “a perpendicular, spicular, orbicular, quadrangular, circular depth of soft mud.” His heroes are Quangle-Wangles, Pobbles, and Jumblies. One of his most famous verbal inventions, the phrase “runcible spoon,” occurs in the closing lines of The Owl and the Pussycat and is now found in many English dictionaries.

Among other travels, he visited Greece and Egypt during 1848–49, and toured India during 1873–75, including a brief detour to Ceylon. While traveling he produced large quantities of colored wash drawings in a distinctive style, which he converted later in his studio into oil and watercolor paintings, as well as prints for his books. His landscape style often shows views with strong sunlight, with intense contrasts of color.
Throughout his life he continued to paint seriously. He had a lifelong ambition to illustrate Tennyson’s poems; near the end of his life a volume with a small number of illustrations was published.

After a long decline in his health, Lear died at his villa in 1888 of heart disease, from which he had suffered since at least 1870.

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