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From 13 February 2016, the Ashmolean Museum Broadway will host an exhibition focusing on the extensive travels of Edward Lear (1812-1888). Lear was one of the most versatile and prolific artists of the nineteenth century. As an illustrator of natural history, he was supreme; as a traveller and recorder in pictures and prose of landscapes in the eastern Mediterranean and India, he was unrivalled; as the author of nonsense verses and stories, his popularity has never been eclipsed.

He began his career as a supremely gifted illustrator of natural history. From 1837, he travelled more extensively than any other artist, recording the landscape in a vast series of sketches which he worked up into finished watercolours and oil paintings in his studio. He also enjoyed enormous popularity as the author of nonsense verses and stories. Yet behind this indefatigable activity, Lear was often deeply unhappy, suffering from epilepsy, insecurity, and loneliness. Indeed, his restless travelling and enormous productivity served in part to compensate for his depression. As he once declared, ‘I HATE LIFE unless I WORK always’.

Lear first began to make landscape drawings while he was staying at Knowsley. He left England for the sake of his health in 1837, and thereafter concentrated on securing a ‘correct representation of many places little cared for or studied by most painters’. His early landscapes were drawn with a thick pencil in imitation of lithographs, and generally highly finished for ready sale. In 1848, after ten years based in Rome, he set off on a tour of the eastern Mediterranean. For the next twenty years, he was constantly on the move between Italy, Greece, and the Near East. Thanks to commissions from Frances, Countess Waldegrave, he was able to fulfil his ambition to explore the Holy Land in 1858. At the invitation of the Viceroy, Lord Northbrook, he made a lengthy tour of India in 1873-4. During these tours, he recorded the landscape in sketches which he initially drew in pencil, then ‘penned out’ and occasionally coloured. Each sketch was carefully inscribed with the date, time, and its number in the tour. Many thousands survive, but they were only intended asprivate notations on which to base the finished watercolours and oil paintings he produced on commission or for sale in his studio.

From extraordinary sketches of landscapes and nature, to the nonsense drawings and verses for which Lear is so well known, the exhibition presents over 20 framed works alongside letters, manuscripts and books. The Ashmolean Museum is the home of the largest and most comprehensive collection of Lear’s work in the UK, and many of these works have rarely been on public display.

Exhibition: Edward Lear: Travels and Nonsense
Dates: 13 February 2016 - 8 May 2016
Venue: Ashmolean Museum Broadway

ALL IMAGES © The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford