Sunday, 15 December 2013

Edward Lear on Corfu

Edward Lear on Corfu

December in Corfu consists of bright spells with violent thunder storms in between!
Here we get sheet lightening and forked lighting at the same time
Very dramatic

All the more reason to consider Corfu in summer, through the eyes of one of its most talented and creative visitor from the past
Wood near my village in Corfu - minus the winter storms!

Edward Lear (1812-88) is best known perhaps for his Book of Nonsense, published in 1846 and for his poem The Owl and the Pussycat

He was, however, a highly skilled draughtsman and his work for Lord Stanley at  Knowsley Hall, Liverpool and the British Zoological Society place him amongst the greatest artists specialising in drawing animals and birds

After 1836, however, he devoted himself exclusively to landscape painting, subsequently travelling to India, Italy (where he eventually lived), northern Greece, Albania - and Corfu

He first visited Corfu in 1848 and returned frequently during the next three years

The above sketch is the earliest known drawing done in Corfu. It is Corfu Town from Aghii Deka and is dated 18th May, 1848

Lear belonged to that school of art that had is roots in the late18th and early 19th centuries (Cotman, Prout, Boys and David Roberts, for example) and yet, in his beautiful watercolour landscapes (like the one above, showing Corfu town from Garouna -1856) there is a modern, Turner-esque sensibility at work

The use of deep purple to render shadow between these ancient olive trees anticipates the Impressionists' experiments in the latter half of the 19th Century

The Citadel, Corfu Town, 1856

Although these water colours have a delightful tranquility about them, it should be said that Lear was not a particularly happy man. All his life he suffered from epilepsy which he concealed even from his closest friends

He was also frequently depressed, not least about his rather unprepossessing appearance. Although he often longed to get married, he remained a bachelor all his life

My particular favourite is this view of Corfu from Analipsis. 

As I write this I can actually see the snow-capped mountains of Albania on the horizon - exactly as Lear captured them in this exquisite water-colour

Although the foreground figures feel somewhat 'placed' the foliage is worthy of Samuel Palmer - another favourite artist of mine

Pelekas, 26 February,1863

This (above) is the view from Pelekas

I know this view well for it was in Pelekas that I stayed on my first visit to Corfu in 1978

I rented a little villa for one year and frequently climbed up the hill above the village to look across the Ropa valley - as Lear is here doing

Kastro St Angelo, Paleokastritsa, April 1862

Most tourists to Corfu will recognize these rocks, for this is Lear's impression of  Paleokastritsa, on the north-west coast of the island

Lear clearly liked this area for he did several sketches and two water colours, including the one shown above, all done in the same month (April 1862)

The letters and journal that accompany these works provide a lively account of his stay on the island and the predominantly British population in whose company he moved

However, you get very little impression or 'feel' for the people of Corfu. His shyness may partly explain this but is has also something to do with the somewhat dated artistic conventions within which he chose to work

Although rather subdued, these elegant water colours do capture the mood and atmosphere of the island at its most tranquil and we must be grateful for that

The illustrations for the above article are taken from Edward Lear - The Corfu Years, edited by Philip Sherrard and published by Denise Harvey & Company, Athens (1988)

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