Edition of 18 copies
16.5″ x 19.5″ open; 20″ x 3.5″ diameter tube
Most people associate Edward Lear (1812-1888) with nonsense poetry and cartoons. In October 2014, Lear’s poem The Owl and the Pussycat was voted as the most popular childhood poem in the UK on National Poetry Day. But Lear, who was born in London, the 20th child his mother gave birth to, spent the majority of his adult life creating landscape paintings on three continents. He made watercolor sketches on location, and used them as a means to get commissions for monumental oil paintings. But no one gets to choose what they are famous for, and his reputation as a comic poet persists.
When Lear died, he possessed an estimated 10,000 – 20,000 of these watercolor landscape sketches, essentially personal and private work, which documents his travels on foot, by pack animal and boat, through parts of Asia, Africa and Europe. Harvard University’s Houghton Library houses over 3,000 of these sketches – the largest gathering of Lear watercolors in one location. Most of the paintings are inscribed with the place, time of day, and date, and they may be consulted online courtesy of Houghton’s Edward Lear Finding Aid.
These incredibly diverse images, in color, style and content, are in this writer’s opinion Edward Lear’s best work. They range from abstract washes of color to remarkably deft trees and animals to breathtaking views conveyed with the sparest of means. But the reason I studied these images was to cull the text scattered all through the landscapes. Lear could not suppress his tragicomic spirit, in invented words and spellings, or woeful and gleeful events and observations, populating his landscapes like a visual diary.
Notations of colors as an aide-mémoire have been noticed in the practice of numerous artists that worked en plein air. The author Stephen Spender, in his 1962 essay “Painters as Writers,” cites poem-like additions that Delacroix used in his travel journals to help recreate the elements in the landscape. Spender comments that “the painters who write most on their sketches themselves seem to be extremely open to the suggestion of words, an extreme example being the painter and humorous poet Edward Lear, who did many such sketches.” But while aide-mémoire are intended as useful notations to help a painter later on, many of Lear’s annotations were not likely to help him recreate his watercolors as oil paintings. There is no reason words in the foreground of the painting should be larger than words in the distance, or why they might be slanted and anamorphic in perspective, clinging to physical elements of the landscape. New York Times journalist Barry Schwabsky, reviewing an Edward Lear show at Princeton in 1999, posits that the image and text of Lear’s paintings work together, that “neither functions as a complete and closed system.” The fact that Lear re-inscribed most of these pencil annotations in ink, in the process of “penning out” or completing the pencil sketches, suggests to me that the words are more than simply an aide-mémoire. They become a part of the composition, occasionally with a soundtrack. Descriptions of sounds – bugles and other instruments, occasionally with a musical staff recording the tune, animal noises, human noises, written in the picture plane, create mental images that could never be painted.
I consulted the 3,000+ Lear sketches at Houghton Library over a period of five weeks in 2011, and filled three sketchbooks with the words from hundreds of paintings, placed on blank pages in the same areas and with the same handwriting as the Lear sketches (ie script or san serif, big or small, slanted or straight). I took note of Italian and Greek inscriptions, and had some of the Greek translated. I also made notes of spelling aberrations and inventions, comments about the weather and morale, all color references, references to places, animals and plants, together with descriptions of sounds and random observations.
This is not my first project which involves combing through, and tabulating, large collections of paintings. In the 1992 work, The Logical Way to Become an Artist, I determined, and conveyed in the unusual format of a blank postcard book, twelve of the most popular themes of painting in the Renaissance. The back cover listed fourteen artists that depicted nine out of these twelve themes. On a grander scale, I studied well over 10,000 tempera paintings commissioned by Ulisse Aldrovandi and Manfredo Settala, in libraries in two Italian cities, making notes on their interesting qualities. After this two month process, I classified eighty-one images into nine categories and made watercolor reproductions of this group of 16th century images for my 1999 book about the history of museums, The Theater of Nature or Curiosity Filled the Cabinet. For the 1992 work Bologna Sample, I surveyed the colors of over 20,000 palazzos in the center of the city of Bologna, ultimately selecting 179 street addresses to be represented with their own watercolor swatch. At the Victoria and Albert Print Collection, I spent five days reviewing several thousand historic wallpaper swatches, some of which were reproduced as linoprints and collographs for my artist’s book Riddle(1994).
My fascination with Lear intensified when I discovered that he not only settled in Italy, but he travelled on foot all around the area of Calabria I visit each year with my husband, who was born there. This is one of the least-visited regions of Italy, and the majority of Calabrians themselves have not explored some of the geological curiosities visited by Lear, such as Pentidattilo, a strange formation of rocks that stick up like five fingers. Michael Montgomery’s 1995 book Lear’s Italy astonished me with the itinerary and diary entries from the province of Reggio Calabria, a very unlikely place for a walking tour, then or now. Lear recorded the awesome majesty of pristine landscapes from India to Jordan, from Italy to Egypt, in isolated areas he travelled to with a folding camp bed and sometimes a valet, or with nomads, camels and tents.
In my desire to share Lear’s life’s work with others, I have begun a series of works dedicated to the landscape sketches.
Wordscapes/Parolaesaggi is the first installment. Each of the 18 copies consist of five different primed canvases representing five individual watercolor sketches in Houghton Library, with the call number of the original painting hidden in the upper left-hand corner. The canvases are blank, apart from the words from the original sketch, extrapolated and painted with black oil paint in the same place and manner as Lear penned them in. The five canvases are bound at the top with a non-adhesive binding imitating a nomad saddle bag closure. The paintings may be unbound and exhibited separately, or the order may be changed. A detachable braided leather strap resembling a bridle, with brass fittings, may be used to hang the canvases on a wall. The works rolls up for storage in a tube covered with linen and a cloth mailing label with Edward Lear’s mailing address in San Remo, Italy, where he built two homes and resided up to his death. Twenty of these canvases were exhibited in Venice, Italy to celebrate his 200th birthday in May 2012, the only exhibition held in his adopted country during his birthday.
Lear Reel is the second installment. It is a multiple in an edition of 22 copies consisting of a piece of Cartiere Magnani watercolor paper with laser printing, pencil text, and watercolor swatches, cut into a circle and mounted with antique brass fittings (an Italian pen nib, wire, a brass closure) to an acid-free cardboard base, annotated with sepia archival ink pens. The color wheel comes with an acid-free storage box with transparent acrylic top, from which it may be removed to spin on a table or to spin by gripping the pen nib and twirling while holding horizontally or vertically. Below the pen nib, protecting the wheel, are canvas circles painted with gray oil paint and cut with pinking shears, resembling the cloth circles used to clean pen nibs. They represent Edward Lear’s desire that his pencil, watercolor and ink sketches would one day be commissioned as oil paintings.
Colors on the wheel:
PURE VANILLA ICE CREAM
DOVE OKRY DARKY
VERY THICK HAZE MANCHESTER
THE FAINTEST BLUE POSSIBLE
FAINT CLAUDE BLU GRAY
MURKY GREEN BLU
MORE POSITIVE GREENS
GRISLY GREEN GRAY
CHEERFUL GOLDY GREEN
SUNSET LEMON CORSICA
SNUFFY PALE OKER
CINDERY PINK ASHY
PHILAE EXACT COLOR
RED BLOTTING PAPER
(The third installment will be the Edward Learosphere, a white word-covered sail canvas environment created for people to lounge and read in, complete with camp and nomad traveling furniture. Contact the artist if you would like the Edward Learosphere to travel to your school/library/museum.)