King's College London
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‘A brighter Hellas’: rediscovering Greece in the 19th century

Edward Lear

Lithograph depicting a male figure walking towards the mountainKróiaIn September 1848 the landscape painter and writer Edward Lear (1812-88) travelled in a north-west direction from Saloníki in Macedonia towards northern Albania. He then journeyed south along the coast through Epirus towards the Gulf of Arta, the boundary at that time with Greece. In 1849 he travelled through Epirusand Thessaly.

Lear published a personal account of his trip in the style of a travel-journal, accompanied by his own lithographs. In his introduction he gave practical tips for prospective visitors, recommending Murray’s Hand-book for modes of travel, what to pack and where to stay. He cautioned:

To the unlearned tourist, indeed, Albania is a puzzle of the highest order. … And no sooner does he begin to understand the motley crowd which inhabits these provinces—Greeks, Sclavonians, Albanians, Bulgarians, or Vlachi—than he is anew bewildered by a fresh list of distinctive sub-splittings … Races, religions, and national denominations seem so ill-defined, or so entangled …

The plate on display shows the Króia Mountain in northern Albania. Sketched outdoors, Lear’s illustrations have a loose and spontaneous quality. In his journal he recalled:

… I remained to dine, and to draw the sublime view before me over the plain, and wide beds of torrents towards the bare, craggy, dark mountain of Króia, with the town and rocks glittering like silver aloft, below a heavy curtain of black cloud.

Lear began his career as an ornithological draughtsman, producing some of the finest work in the field. He later turned to landscape painting to lessen the strain on his weak eyesight. From 1837 to 1848 he spent an extended period in Italy, where he sketched outdoors, working his drawings into finished watercolours and oils in the studio. During the same period he delighted children with his Book of Nonsense (1846), containing a humorous style of poetry using non-existent words, ornonsense verse, for which he became famous.

Before returning to England in the late 1840s, Lear made an extensive trip to gather subject matter for his paintings, taking in Malta, Corfu, Greece, Constantinople and Albania. In 1856-8 and 1861-4 he spent extended spells in Corfu, and in 1863 he toured the Ionian Islands and published Views in the seven Ionian Islands, a descriptive account with twenty lithographic plates.

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