I first fell in love with Edward Lear, artist, illustrator and poet, known for his literary nonsense, in poetry and prose, and especially his limericks, a form that he popularized in Victorian England, when I read the above snippet. Enthralled that this English poet, who had penned the immortal: “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” and “The Dong with the Luminous Nose,” (a nonsense re-telling of Nausica’s love for Odysseus) and had inspired geniuses like Spike Milligan to further nonsense efforts, would gain such inspiration from Greek geographical toponyms, I was thrilled to discover that Lear’s poetic had also applied itself to Smyrna, (there was a Young Person of Smyrna, whose Grandmother threatened to burn her; ), Thermoylae: (“There was once an old man of Thermopylae, who never did anything properly,”) and Rhodes: (“There was an Old Person of Rhodes, Who strongly objected to toads; He paid several cousins, To catch them by dozens, That futile Old Person of Rhodes”.)
Born in London in 1812, Lear started work as a serious illustrator and his first publication, at the age of 19, was Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots in 1830. His paintings were well received and he was favorably compared with Aubudon’s Throughout his life he continued to paint seriously. He had a lifelong ambition to illustrate Tennyson’s poems, Tennyson being a close personal friend of his; near the end of his life a volume with a small number of illustrations was published, but his vision for the work was never realized. Lear briefly gave drawing lessons to Queen Victoria, leading to some awkward incidents when he failed to observe proper court protocol. Throughout his life, Lear travelled Europe and Asia, sketching landscapes that he felt would appeal to the English public. Though merely reproductions from nature without interpretation, despite Lear’s close friendship with the eminent Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt (whom he called “Daddy”), Lear’s watercolours did much to popularise the Greek countryside in England.
Lear found it fitting that his surname, anglicised by his Danish grandfather from Lør, is also the transcription of the Greek «λήρος,» meaning nonsense. Lear’s nonsense poems are his enduring legacy. Penned at the outset to amuse the children of his wealthy clients, the affable Lear, a great favourite with children and the life of the Victorian party, they are his most enduring legacy, long after his paintings lie forgotten. In 1846 Lear published A Book of Nonsense, a volume of limericks which went through three editions and helped popularize the form. In 1865 The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipple-Popple was published, and in 1867 his most famous: “The Owl and the Pussycat”, which he wrote for the children of his patron Edward Stanley, the 13th Earl of Derby.
The Greek gloss is also fitting because throughout his life, Lear was a fervent hellenophile, who traveled the length and breadth of Greece at a time when owing to the lawlessness of the Ottoman Empire, it was unsafe to do so. “If I had my way,” he wrote, “I would cause it to be understood that Greek is (or knowledge of it), the first of all virtues, cleanliness the second and Godliness - as held up by parsons generally, the third.” Indeed, throughout his life, which was planned to the hour, his first activity would be to study Greek for an hour. He became fluent in the language, conversing with his servant, the Souliote Georgos Kokkalis, always in Greek.
Between 1848-1849, Edward Lear traveled to Greece, in order to draw inspiration from its classical landscape. During the two months of his tour, he traversed the whole of the Peloponnese, visiting Bassae, Sparta, Mycenae, Corinth, then to Athens, then Aegina and Sounium; then northwards to Thebes and Delphi and back to Athens. Arriving from Brindisi in Patra, he wrote of that town: “ A sleepless night, dogs out of doors, goats and fleas innumerable.” The tour was a great success. To see more of Greece, whose ‘divinest beauty’ had already charmed him, produced what were probably the happiest weeks of all his life. Among his journeys, this one stood out always as the best. He was passionately interested in every detail, whether of landscape or flowers, or peasant’s costumes and came back with two hundred sketches, large and small.
In Greece, Lear stayed with Strafford Canning, British Ambassador to Turkey and Sir Richard Church, ,arxistratigos and hero of the Greek War of Independence. His first trip to Greece was marred by mishapThe first day, Lear’s horse fell and he was thrown over its head, hurting his arm and shoulder. He refused to go back to Athens and visited Marathon, Chalcis, Thermopylae and other places, Lear indomitable drawing and sketching all the time, in spite of the continued pain of his sprained shoulder – in extreme discomfort of the ‘khan’s in which they stayed (and which provoked him to a characteristic bad pun: “khan” – so generally called because one tries to live there but can’t). Then he was bitten by a ‘centipede or some horror’ which caused a great swelling on his leg. Then he went to Plataea, ‘forgetting my umbrella, where the sun finished me.’ By the time they had reached Thebes he was in a high fever: He remained there for ten days, dangerously ill, and was brought back to Athens ‘by 4 horses on an indiarubber bed.’ But his spirit was unbroken by all these misfortunes, and even in spite of them he had managed to extract a large amount of enjoyment and profit from his tour. ‘I have made many drawings of great value, and hope my time and money are well spent in ensuring me a stock of classical subjects for future paintings,” he wrote.
Frank Lushington, Corfu and then Thames Magistrate, who accompanied Lear on his tour wrote of his indefatigable friend: “I remember one night in Greece, when after scrambling for fifteen hours on horseback over the roughest mountain paths, we had dismounted and were waiting in a black darkness for our guide to find a few huts a tolerably weather-tight shelter for us to sleep in, Lear, who was thoroughly tired, sat down upon what he supposed to be a bank; but an instant grunt and heave convinced him of his error as a dark bovine quadruped suddenly rose up under him and tilted him into the mud. As Lear regained his feet, he cheerily burst out into song: “These was once on old man who said, Now/ I’ll sit down on the horns of that cow.”
Lear was back a few months later. In his various tours during 1848-9, he covered the whole of the Greek Peninsula. During the next two years, he busied himself in drawing out lithographs from his sketches and in writing up the diaries which he had kept on the spot. ‘Journals of a Landscape Painter in Greece and Athens’ was published to great acclaim in 1851. His oil-painting “Bassae” was bought by the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, while his view of Marathon and Sparta were hung in the Royal Academy and in 1851, “Argos from the citadel of Mycenae” was bought by Trinity College Cambridge.
His Journal is fascinating because in it he not only includes his paintings of a rural, idyllic Greece but also detailed descriptions of the conditions prevailing in the country. His travels through the remote mountain fastnesses of Epirus and Albania are particularly interesting, as he traversed territory that no westerner had seen for hundreds of years. Starting from Preveza, he went up to Ioannina, into Northern Epirus, then down into Thessaly, to Larissa and the Valley of the Tempe. His travails were not without humour. Of the lake at Ioannina he wrote: “I enjoyed the walk immensely… only my feelings were hurt by passing so many flocks of geese, who all saluted me and evidently recognised me as a fellow creature of the same mental calibre as themselves. The ducks said not a word and I think it was not kind of the geese to compromise me so openly.”
In Cheimarra, haven of refugees and freedom-fighters he: “lived on rugs and ate with gypsies and unclean persons and performed frightful discrepancies for 8 days,” and I found his description of Krujë, outside Tiranë ringing in my ears, when I first visited it: “Croia – the once famous city of the Greek Scanderbeg who resisted the Turks for so long, is a charming town , all up in the sky.” In Monastiri and Elbasan, he almost came to grief by unruly Albanians who could not understand the concept of painting and wanted to kill him: “Knots of the Elbassaniotes pointed with angry gestures to me and my ‘scroo’ (drawing.) “We will not be written down” said they. “The Frank is a Russian and he is sent by the Sultan to write us all down before he sells us to the Russian Emperor.”
Lear’s wit and sarcasm was particularly caustic when he surveyed the dysfunctional state of Greek politics and the system of patronage and corruption that underpinned it. In doing so, he even created new Greek words. Writing to his friend, Baron Carlingford, he requested: “I want you to write to Lord Palmerston to ask the Queen to ask the King of Greece to give me a “place”… I wish the place to be created a-purpose for me and the title to be «ο Αρχινοησιαφλυαριαποιός» (Lord High bosh-and nonsense-maker) with permission to wear a fool’s cap (or mire) - 3 pounds of butter yearly and a little pig and a small donkey to ride on. Please don’t forget all this, as I have my heart set on it.” That the Greek language informed and inspired his nonsense poetry is beyond doubt. Characters such as Mr and Mrs Discobbolus and the new species of Greek mushroom: “Pongchambinnibophilos Kakokreasophoros.”
As a devout Anglican, Lear was fascinated by Greek priests and his record of his first sighting of one is memorable: “Gracious! a clergyman with large black moustaches and a long beard. I never saw such a one before - but there he was and moreover, he preached a very good sermon… and everyone agreed how manly and how like better times he looked, in contrast with the nasty, effeminate, woman-imitating, shaved men who have, since the days of Charles II, distorted the human face out of its natural state.” This admiration did not however translate to the “various mucilaginous monx,” of Mount Athos, among whom he sojourned for two months: “The worst was the food and the filth, which were the worst to bear. But however wondrous and picturesque the exterior and interior of the monasteries and however abundantly and exquisitely glorious and stupendous the scenery of the mountain, I would not go again to the Άγιος Όρος (sic) for any money, so gloomy, so shockingly unnatural, so lonely, so lying, so unatonably odious seems to me all the atmosphere of such monkery. That half of our species which it is natural to every man to cherish and love best, ignored, prohibited and abhorred… These muttering, miserable mutton-hating, man-avoiding, misogynic, morose and merriment-marring, monotoning, many mule-making, mocking, mournful, minced-fish and marmelade masticating Monx…”
In years to come, Lear would settle on Corfu, falling in love with a native girl Helen Kontatzi and braving the natural phenomena of that island: “No winter here in Corfu but (en revanche), 43 small earthquakes. My house was cracked in 3 places, a series of brutal earthquakes having spifflicated my old rooms.” Returning to London, he published his “Views of the Seven Ionian Islands” again to popular acclaim.
Lear restricted himself not just to Greece but also explored areas of the wider Ghreek world. In 1868 he visited the Greek settlement at Carghese in Corsica and also spent seasons visiting Greek ruins in Calabria and Sicily, looking for "rox and oax were of the proper Greek kind” in order to paint various ancient scenes. His “The Quarries of Syracuse” - “with ½ starved Athenians judiciously introduced” received the Art Union Prize at the Royal Academy.
Edward Lear, hellenophile, eccentric and immortal poet did much to create continued sympathy among the British populace for an increasingly beleagured Greek state. His Greek landscapes catered to a craving for all things Greek that has long since subsided. Dying alone in 1888 in San Remo, this sad, endearingly affectionate old man had himself penned how he would have liked to be remembered and we cannot but concur: “How pleasant to know Mr Lear, who has written such volumes of stuff. Some think him ill tempered and queer, but a few think him pleasant enough.” Until next time: “There was a young person of Janina, Whose uncle was always a fanning her; When he fanned off her head, She smiled sweetly, and said, ‘You propitious old person of Janina!”
First published in NKEE on 14 July 2008