Edward Lear in Ireland

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), News, Volume 17

Edward Lear is best remembered today for his humorous verses—he first popularised the limerick—which he called his ‘Nonsenses’. This exhibition concentrates on Lear’s early career as a landscape draughtsman up to his departure from England in 1837; it covers his tours in Ireland in August 1835 and in northern Lancashire and the Lake District from August to October 1836.
Lear, born in 1812, started out as an ornithological draughtsman, publishing the first of a twelve-part collection of detailed paintings of London Zoo’s parrots when he was only eighteen; his work was much praised. But his health was always poor; by the mid-1830s his eyesight was strained, and he was turning to landscape painting. His Irish sketches mark the path his future work was to take. Lear moved to Rome in 1837 and spent much of his later life around the Mediterranean, although he did visit Ireland again in 1857.
In 1835 the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) held its fifth annual meeting in Dublin. It was the first time it had met outside England, and great efforts were made to attract visitors; Edward Lear was one of many participants who came over from Britain. While he was here, Lear made at least two expeditions in the Dublin area, and the nine of his sketches that are known to survive will be featured in the exhibition.
The BAAS meeting was held from 10 to 15 August 1835, and notes for the forthcoming exhibition researched by Charles Nugent show that Lear stayed at 20 Dame Street, convenient for the Royal Dublin Society’s board room in Kildare Street’s Leinster House, where the zoology and botany section of the BAAS held its meetings, and close to Trinity College and the Royal Irish Academy’s then premises at 114 Grafton Street. He most probably attended a ‘dejeuner’ for 500 at the gardens of the Zoological Society. He may also have been one of the ‘upwards of 300’ who travelled on the year-old Dublin and Kingstown Railway out to Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire), where they would have inspected the great granite piers of the new harbour and admired the fine buildings springing up along the coast; the party dined at Marsh’s Hotel (the Salthill Hotel, demolished in the 1970s), also newly opened adjacent to the railway.
After the meeting closed, Lear and two companions made a tour into the Wicklow Mountains. This was a fashionable thing to do at the time, with the Powerscourt waterfall, Glendalough and the now almost forgotten Dargle Glen as three of the most favoured destinations. Small parties hired jaunting cars or the more substantial barouches and took a well-travelled route out via Enniskerry and back through Bray. Lear’s party seems to have followed this route. It is known that they visited Luggala and Glendalough, and that they stayed a night at Bellevue, the La Touche mansion at Delgany.
Seven of Lear’s surviving sketches date from this expedition, made in pencil on grey paper, in some cases with the pencil heightened with white. It is possible to arrange them in the likely order in which they were drawn. The first (left) shows ‘The Great and Little Sugar Loafs, from the Scalp, Co. Wicklow’, looking down from rocks at a height on the west side towards the road below and in the distance the two peaks, with the Great Sugar Loaf in particular rising to a greatly exaggerated point. A second view of the two Sugar Loafs with Powerscourt’s parkland in the foreground is rather more realistic, as is the glimpse of the Great Sugar Loaf behind a pair of dramatic tree trunks, which seems to be a view from near the Powerscourt waterfall. Lough Tay (the party may have stayed the night at Luggala), the round tower at Glendalough, a view of the Glen of the Downs inscribed ‘The Banqueting-room in the demesne of Bellevue, with a distant view of Wicklow Head’, and a view of Main Street, Bray, on market day complete the sequence.
The remaining two sketches are of the round tower at Clondalkin and must come from a separate expedition. All nine are in private hands in Ireland and Britain, and most will be on public view this summer for the first time. HI

Mary Davies is a writer and editor.

‘Edward Lear the Landscape Artist: tours of Ireland and the English Lakes 1835 and 1836’ will run at Dove Cottage, the Wordsworth Museum and Art Gallery, Grasmere, Cumbria, from 2 July to 4 October 2009. Details @ www.wordsworth.org.uk.

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