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  • Palms and Temples:Edward Lear's Topographies
  • Richard Maxwell (bio)

Edward Lear's paintings and drawings were often reproduced in books. Publishing successes during his lifetime included his parrot portfolio, the Audubon-like Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae (1832); several travel journals, accompanied by his own lithographs; and, from 1846 onwards, nonsense poems matched by brilliant doodlings. The present essay explores Lear's lifelong fascination with topography and topographical images, emphasizing, particularly, his relations with Alfred Tennyson, his favorite contemporary author.1 Lear gave Tennyson a copy of his Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania (1851); the poet responded by writing a generous, if slightly misjudged, lyric, "To E. L." During several subsequent decades, Lear worked on the never-quite-finished "Landscape Illustrations of Tennyson." Considered in sequence, the Journals, "To E. L," and the "Landscape Illustrations" illuminate Lear's developing theory of book illustration. These closely linked examples show how codex formats could heighten the impact of Lear's visual work. Lear's big topographical oil paintings generally got a mixed response; his real flair was for imagining books whose images bore a charged relation to words (preferably, but not necessarily, his own). The Journals' plates become artifacts of travel (objects rather than pictures of objects) while the plates of "Illustrations" gain an unusual expressiveness by evoking simultaneously two different genres of landscape portfolio. In both cases, Lear's engagement with basic features of books (that they usually contain words; that their pages are permanently ordered) redefines the value of his own artistic career.

Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania

Lear's vivid writing surprised some early reviewers. Writing in the Quarterly Review, Richard Ford notes of the Illustrated Excursions in Italy (1846): "Prepared by annual experience of the stereotyped stuff of illustrated books, we began by only looking at the engravings; but by and bye, from an accidental glance at a sentence or two we found ourselves tempted on—and so on, until we read the entire letter-press—to be well repaid by much new observation, nice marking of manners, genuine relish for nature, and quiet dramatic humour."2 Similar praise could have been applied to Lear's "Views of Rome and Its Environs" (1841), his Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania (1851), [End Page 73] and his Journals of a Landscape Painter in Southern Calabria (1852). In fact, no other group of mid-Victorian travel books exhibits so balanced an attention to words and images—or so close an integration between them.

Illustrated Excursions in Italy is the largest, most magnificent of these accounts; the Albanian tour is the most self-conscious. Lear's preface observes that, to the "unlearned tourist," Albania is a "puzzle of the highest order." It is mountainous, with bad roads, and remains prone to violent rebellions against Ottoman authority. Travel requires permits that can be granted only from Istanbul. The ancient geographical names with which people might associate Albanian landscapes are "thwarted and confused" by more recent "Turkish divisions," and by a "third set of names" used by local tribes. The "races, religions, and national denominations" of Albania are almost impossible to untangle. All in all, Lear suggests, "a good dragoman, or interpreter, is absolutely necessary, however many languages you may be acquainted with."3

Lear had a "good dragoman," his servant Giorgio, yet his Journals present him as a latter-day Dr. Syntax, plagued with misfortunes while in search of the picturesque. When it rains, his glasses fog up. He falls off his horse, or the horse sinks in the mud. He is regularly threatened by packs of dogs. There are inconvenient additions to the party, like an old gentlemen who falls into a river and has to be rescued from it. Lear endures political rants by peculiar hosts. He has to share lodgings (sometimes rooms) with mules, geese, and, on one occasion, a hostile whirling dervish. He picks at dismal food, or must overeat in order to express his gratitude.

The most pervasive of these "penalties for the picturesque" is the trip's sheer noisiness. At night, when Lear is trying to sleep, horses champ straw, streams gurgle, an aged scholar scribbles and coughs, or...


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