Monday, March 8, 2010
Edward Lear - Petra
signed with monogram and dated l.r.: 1859; further signed with monogram l.l.
oil on canvas
35¾ by 58in.
Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium: 356,000 GBP
Lear travelled extensively in Palestine in the spring of 1858. Before leaving, he wrote to his friend Chichester Fortescue: 'I have been practising shooting at a mark, (I can hardly write for laughing,) & have learned all the occult nature of pistols'. Though his mastery of firearms remained rudimentary, his anxiety was justified, for travellers were frequently attacked and robbed by Arab tribesman.
He docked at Alexandria on 17 March, 1858 and, after a brief and uncomfortable stay in Jerusalem, he set out across the desert for Petra, a place he had long wished to see. This rock-carved, 'rose-red city, half as old as time', once the capital of the Nabataean tribe, had been lost for centuries until its rediscovery by the Swiss explorer, Burckhardt, in 1812, the year of Lear's birth.
As well as his personal servant, Giorgio, Lear had with him a guide called Abdel and a protective escort of fifteen armed men. For five days they rode on camels across some of the lowest, hottest land on earth. Each night they pitched their tents on the sand, and after dinner he would sit outside in the quiet stillness watching the large, clear moon and the stars in the vast desert silence. On the morning of the sixth day they reached Petra.
He kept a detailed diary of his journey. This was published after his death as 'The Journey to Petra: A Leaf from the Journals of a Landscape Painter' in Macmillans Magazine in April 1897. In it he describes the beauties of the desert and the alarming adventures that he experienced.
'About nine we reached the highest part of the mountain ascent', he wrote, 'and passing the ridge immediately below the rocks of Gebel Haroun (Aaron's mountain), now upon our left, entered the first or upper part of Wady Mousa on its western side. But it was nearly another hour before, still descending by winding tracks, we reached the first cavern tombs and the first coloured rocks. The slow advance chills with a feeling of strange solitude the intruder into the loneliness of this bygone world, where on every side are tokens of older greatness, and where between then and now is no link. As the path wandered among huge crags and over broad slabs of rock, ever becoming more striped and glowing in colour, I was more and more excited with curiosity and expectation. And after passing the solitary column which stands sentinel-like over the heaps of ruin around, and reaching the open space whence the whole area of the old city and the vast eastern cliff are fully seen, I own to having been more delighted and astonished than I had ever been by any spectacle.' It is this scene that is the subject of the present painting.
Lear went on: 'Not that at the first glance the extent and magnificence of this enchanted valley can be appreciated: this its surprising brilliance and variety of colour, and its incredible amount of detail, forbid. But after a while, when the eyes have taken in the undulating slopes terraced and cut and covered with immense foundations and innumerable stones, ruined temples, broken pillars and capitals, and the lengthened masses of masonry on each side of the river that runs from east to west through the whole wady, down to the very edge of the water, - and when the sight has rested on the towering western cliffs below Mont Hor, crowded with perforated tombs, and on the astonishing array of wonders carved in the opposite face of the great eastern cliff, - then the impression that both pen and pencil in travellers' hands have fallen infinitely short of a true portrait of Petra deepens into certainty. Nor is this the fault of either artist or author.
'The attraction arising from the singular mixture of architectural labour with the wildest extravagances of nature, - the excessive and almost terrible feeling of loneliness in the very midst of scenes so plainly telling of a past glory and a race of days long gone, - the vivid contrast of the countless fragments of ruin, basement, foundation, wall, and scattered stone, with the bright green of the vegetation, and the rainbow hues of rock and cliff, - the dark openings of the hollow tombs on every side, - the white river-bed and its clear stream, edged with superb scarlet-tufted blossom of oleander alternating with groups of white-flowered broom, - all these combine to form a magical condensation of beauty and wonder which the ablest pen or pencil has no chance of conveying to the eye or mind. Even if all the myriad details of loveliness in colour, and all the visible witchery of wild nature and human toil could be rendered exactly, who could reproduce the dead silence and strange feeling of solitude which are among the chief characteristics of this enchanted region?
'What art could give the star-bright flitting of the wild dove and rock-partridge through the oleander-gloom, or the sound of the clear river rushing among the ruins of the fallen city ... I felt, "I have found a new world - but my art is helpless to recall it to others, or to represent it to those who have never seen it." Yet, as the enthusiastic foreigner said to the angry huntsman who asked if he meant to catch the fox, - I will try.'
It was noon when he settled down to draw, and he worked on until it was too dark to see. 'As the sun went down, the great eastern cliff became one solid wall of fiery-red stone, rose-coloured piles of cloud resting on it and on the higher hills beyond like a new poem-world betwixt earth and heaven'. Only when the light had gone did he return to where their tents had been pitched.
Then he saw, on one of the rock terraces above the camp, a line of ten squatting figures silently watching them. A small goatherd boy who had seen their party had told the Bedouin that they were there, and now they had come to demand money as tax for travelling across their land. Lear had already paid a levy to the Sheikh of Haweitât, but these Arabs were from Dibdiba and wanted their own payment. They told Abdel that if they were not paid they would return with fifty men. Lear explained that the Sheikh of Haweitât would divide the money he had been given amongst them all, and they left, muttering belligerently.
Lear went uneasily to bed and at midnight he was wakened by shouting. Outside his tent, fifty or so Arabs were dismounting noisily from their camels. They greeted Lear's men, then lit fires and settled down to wait for the morning. All through the night more men kept arriving, and Lear, unable to sleep, packed his things ready to leave. When, at dawn, he cautiously opened his tent flap, he saw more than a hundred Arabs squatting outside.
Now a group of Haweitât rode into the camp. Their Sheikh, they said, was coming and he had the money with him. Reassured, Lear slipped quietly away, for having come so far and at such expense, his only thought was to get more drawings of Petra. At ten o'clock he returned to the camp. The Sheikh, dressed in scarlet robes and riding a white Arab stallion, had now arrived and there were nearly two hundred Arabs quarrelling violently over the division of the money. Lear gave orders for the tents to be struck, then he disappeared once more to draw. In the chamber of Khasmé he melodramatically wrote his name on the wall so that any party sent out to look for them would know that he had reached Petra.
Back in the camp, he found the Sheikh arguing angrily with some of the other leaders, while the Arabs grabbed Lear's camels and gathered menacingly around him. Suddenly a cry went up and he was seized and his pockets emptied - except surprisingly for his watch and pistol. Giorgio, too, was stripped of his possessions, and Abdel was pulled to the ground and his turban wrenched off. Lear managed to get to the Sheikh, and he pulled him outside to show him what was happening. 'You must pay twenty dollars at once to these men of Dibdiba or I can do nothing for you', the Sheikh told him; 'after that I will help you if I can'.
The money was paid and the Sheikh led the way out of the camp. But it was not all over. First one group and then another and another, dissatisfied with their share, came after them and demanded more. Lear paid them all he had, and when at last they realised that there was nothing left, they turned back and left him.
Despite his adventures, Lear had been able to do enough drawing to give him the reference he needed for two large paintings of Petra. The other, of the Theatre, was sold at Christie's on 28 January 1972.
The present painting was commissioned by the Victorian collector and patron, Sir Thomas Fairbairn, one of several paintings he asked Lear to do for him. The price was £250. Lear worked on it in Rome, where he had taken rooms, during the winter of 1858-9. In 1872 he borrowed it back so that he could exhibit it in the Royal Academy (No. 942). Here it was hung high, and the reviewer for The Times regretted its position, writing, that 'with all its delicate workmanship of foreground and distance, and its infinitely painstaking elaboration of local colour, utterly invisible where it hangs, beyond critical ken, at the top of Gallery 9. As if in mockery or by that meeting of two extremes which has grown into a proverb, "Petra" is placed immediately above Mr. Whistler's "Arrangement in Gray and Black", which, thanks to its broad simplicity, would have lost nothing had the two pictures changed places, while, as they hang, Mr. Lear's delicate work is entirely sacrificed.' This was Whistler's famous painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: the Artist's Mother. Lear's painting of Petra was later acquired by the descendants of his sister, Sarah, who lived in New Zealand, and has been in the family there for the last hundred years.
We are very grateful to Vivian Noakes for kindly preparing this catalogue entry.
at 6:00 AM