Printer Friendly

Palms and temples: Edward Lear's topographies.

Edward Lear's paintings and drawings were often reproduced in books. Publishing successes during his lifetime included his parrot portfolio, the Audubon-like Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae (1832); several travel journals, accompanied by his own lithographs; and, from 1846 onwards, nonsense poems matched by brilliant doodlings. The present essay explores Lear's lifelong fascination with topography and topographical images, emphasizing, particularly, his relations with Alfred Tennyson, his favorite contemporary author. (1) Lear gave Tennyson a copy of his Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania (1851); the poet responded by writing a generous, if slightly misjudged, lyric, "To E. L." During several subsequent decades, Lear worked on the never-quite-finished "Landscape Illustrations of Tennyson." Considered in sequence, the Journals, "To E. L," and the "Landscape Illustrations" illuminate Lear's developing theory of book illustration. These closely linked examples show how codex formats could heighten the impact of Lear's visual work. Lear's big topographical oil paintings generally got a mixed response; his real flair was for imagining books whose images bore a charged relation to words (preferably, but not necessarily, his own). The Journals' plates become artifacts of travel (objects rather than pictures of objects) while the plates of "Illustrations" gain an unusual expressiveness by evoking simultaneously two different genres of landscape portfolio. In both cases, Lear's engagement with basic features of books (that they usually contain words; that their pages are permanently ordered) redefines the value of his own artistic career.

Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania

Lear's vivid writing surprised some early reviewers. Writing in the Quarterly Review, Richard Ford notes of the Illustrated Excursions in Italy (1846): "Prepared by annual experience of the stereotyped stuff of illustrated books, we began by only looking at the engravings; but by and bye, from an accidental glance at a sentence or two we found ourselves tempted on--and so on, until we read the entire letter-press-to be well repaid by much new observation, nice marking of manners, genuine relish for nature, and quiet dramatic humour." (2) Similar praise could have been applied to Lear's "Views of Rome and Its Environs" (1841), his Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania (1851), and his Journals of a Landscape Painter in Southern Calabria (1852). In fact, no other group of mid-Victorian travel books exhibits so balanced an attention to words and images--or so close an integration between them.

Illustrated Excursions in Italy is the largest, most magnificent of these accounts; the Albanian tour is the most self-conscious. Lear's preface observes that, to the "unlearned tourist," Albania is a "puzzle of the highest order." It is mountainous, with bad roads, and remains prone to violent rebellions against Ottoman authority. Travel requires permits that can be granted only from Istanbul. The ancient geographical names with which people might associate Albanian landscapes are "thwarted and confused" by more recent "Turkish divisions," and by a "third set of names" used by local tribes. The "races, religions, and national denominations" of Albania are almost impossible to untangle. All in all, Lear suggests, "a good dragoman, or interpreter, is absolutely necessary, however many languages you may be acquainted with." (3)

Lear had a "good dragoman," his servant Giorgio, yet his Journals present him as a latter-day Dr. Syntax, plagued with misfortunes while in search of the picturesque. When it rains, his glasses fog up. He falls off his horse, or the horse sinks in the mud. He is regularly threatened by packs of dogs. There are inconvenient additions to the party, like an old gentlemen who fails into a river and has to be rescued from it. Lear endures political rants by peculiar hosts. He has to share lodgings (sometimes rooms) with mules, geese, and, on one occasion, a hostile whirling dervish. He picks at dismal food, or must overeat in order to express his gratitude.

The most pervasive of these "penalties for the picturesque" is the trip's sheer noisiness. At night, when Lear is trying to sleep, horses champ straw, streams gurgle, an aged scholar scribbles and coughs, or cats "tear about" until dawn. A party of "Toskidhes Albanians" sheltering nearby sings interminably: "One makes a deep drone or bass; two more lead the air; and the remainder indulge in strange squeaking falsettos, like the whinings of uneasy sucking-pigs" (Journals, pp. 194-195). Sunrise brings no relief. A new day is generally signaled by the Muezzin's chant, which would be more beautiful were it not so often mixed with the cackle of geese. While in transit, often for eight or ten hours a day, Lear encounters a lot of exuberant, friendly gunfire (which apparently functions like a handshake). Hostile gunfire is less frequent, and does not last long, but tends to generate further noise; in the wake of a revenge killing, a shriek at dawn initiates days of mourning chants. Lear himself becomes an inventive, rather grotesque, noise-maker. Asked to describe steamboats and railroad trains, he resorts to onomatopoeia: "squish-squash" for the steamboats; for the train "tik-tok, tokka, tokka, tokka" in a crescendo that amazes as well as amuses his listener (p. 115).

Yet Lear's noise-plagued narrative is coupled with pictures in which all the incessant racket of Albania seems to have died away. These interludes of image-struck calm occur regularly, but can never be taken for granted. Skirting a salt lagoon--"Here they take a sort of mullet, from which is prepared the roe called 'bottarga', for which Avlona is famous'--Lear encounters
   an infinite number of what appeared to be large white stones,
   arranged in rows with great regularity, though yet with something
   odd in their form not easily to be described. The more I looked at
   them, the more I felt they were not what they seemed to be, so I
   appealed to Blackey, who instantly plunged into a variety of
   explanations, verbal and active; the chief of which consisted in
   flapping his arms and hands, puffing and blowing with most uncouth
   noises, and putting his head under one arm, with his eyes shut; as
   for his language, it was so mixed a jargon of Turkish, Italian,
   Greek and Nubian, that little more could be extracted from it, than
   that the objects in question ate fish and flew away afterwards; so
   I resolved to examine these mysterious white stones forthwith, and
   off we went, when--lo! on my near approach, one and all put forth
   legs, long necks, and great wings, and "stood confessed" so many
   great pelicans, which, with croakings expressive of great disgust
   at all such ill-timed interruptions, rose up into the air in a body
   of five or six hundred, and soared slowly away to the cliffs north
   of the gulf. (pp. 294-295)

Following this startling revelation (or setback), the artist seems to plunge onward without regrets. He threads his way toward "the low hills beyond the isthmus," to a village, a lake, and a monastery on an island, a vista he finds attractively picturesque. Then he suddenly experiences a change of heart: "the sun was setting, and I was [more] desirous of making a drawing of Avlona from the salt works, with a foreground of pelicans." So instead of pausing at the island, he circles back, to discover that the birds, too, have returned. There is just enough light for serious sketching. Finally, as the sun disappears, "we galloped across the marshy sand waste, pursued now and then by ravenous howling dogs, and by half-an-hour after dark were at the gate" (pp. 295-296).

This passage evokes--albeit in an unusually elaborate way--the regularly repeated procedure that underlies Lear's travel books of the 1840s and early 1850s. These works are startlingly explicit about several matters. First of all, as noted by Richard Ford, "the gentleman describes his own drawings, a process unusual in illustrated works, but highly commendable when, what is still more unusual, the author is not swamped by the artist" (p. 440). Second, and even more striking, all four of his major topographical books are built around stories that explain how he made his drawings; they highlight less the moment of sketching, which was typically quick and wordless, than the difficulties that lead up to it. (4) The pelican narrative is particularly deft in starting with a guidebook fact about fishing for mullet, then dramatizing the discovery of disguised fishers-in-the-landscape. At first the tone is comic. The joke is largely on Lear--on his bad eyesight, his linguistic deficiencies, his capacity for driving his companion to ridiculous verbal and physical contortions (vividly conveyed by Lear, perhaps not as dense as he pretends). Neither the guide's Babelesque commentary nor his desperate charade gets the message across; Lear has to see for himself. His curious approach occasions a metamorphosis, a "transmutation of the white stones" into birds. The petrified landscape comes to life and flies away in a racket of wings and beaks. This incident reverses what happens in familiar myths about shape-changing, where animate creatures tend to freeze into fixed, forever mute forms, yet it generates its own amazements. Lear is both rewarded by the spectacle of the grumpy, absconding pelicans, and brought up short by it. Having lost his picture, he has to continue his tour, resist the allure of blander scenes, and then risk a return to the lagoon. He is betting that the original tableau will have pulled itself back together. His drawing is snatched from the last minutes of the day. The absurdist beginning, the fantastical moment of shape-shifting, and the half-penitential wandering of the bereft seeker for wonders pay off--only to be succeeded by a rush back to safety that anticipates Dracula: galloping flight, sandy waste, howling out of the dark, the city gate, a narrow escape from doom. This Gothic ending echoes (but does not reconstitute) the comic inadvertence of the tale's beginning. However silly he might appear hanging on to his steed, Lear has got what he wanted and lived to tell the tale (Journals, pp. 294-296).

Like most of the illustrations to the travel books, the plate that accompanies this narrative (titled "Avlona") concentrates on displaying the lay of the land (Figure 1). Lear the artist is not very attracted to sensuous immersion in a landscape. He wants to picture the scenes around him in a manner less abstract than a map but also uncommitted to effects of touch, texture, and atmosphere. Lear's pelicans are almost cartoonish (unlike the brilliant sharp-focus studies of parrots), while lacking the wit of their nonsensical brethren in Lear's memorable illustrated poem, "The Pelican Chorus." Nonetheless, they are effective delimiters of space, drawing one's eye across the vast salt plains. Broad bands of shading, from tan to darkish grey to a distant silver, are also a means of charting distances (and perhaps of hinting at a late afternoon sun). The most compelling linear effects in the plate are the fine moments of geological striation--cracks and fault lines that hint at the landscape's structural underpinnings.

However, like most of Lear's sketches, "Avlona" is linked not only to the geography it depicts but also to the geography of its own itinerant production. The foreground pelicans are the ones that Lear would have drawn, had they not noticed his approach. By contrast, the middle left of the picture includes a ring of what look like white stones, suggesting a kind of neolithic survival. These stones are, of course, pelicans too-presented at a greater distance, as they originally appeared to the painter. At middle right, moreover, stone-like creatures, which make up a slightly larger clump, are unfolding themselves into pelican form: rehearsing that first moment of metamorphosis, when Lear was so amazed. Lear evokes the tale of his initial encounter with the scene even while suggesting the rhythm and the logic of his eventual return. The possibility (or impossibility) of such returns-the chance of ever seeing a particular landscape again--is here, as often, a determining calculation.


"To E. L., on His Travels in Greece"

Lear's admiration for Tennyson dates from the mid 1840s. (5) He met the poet himself around mid century, and in due course became a family friend (more friendly with Tennyson's spouse, Emily, than with the poet himself). When Lear gave Tennyson a copy of the Albanian Journals, Tennyson responded with six stanzas of praise: "To E. L., on His Travels in Greece."
   Illyrian woodlands, echoing falls
      Of water, sheets of summer glass,
      The long divine Peneian pass,
   The vast Akrokeraunian walls,

   Tomohrit, Athos, all things fair,
      With such a pencil, such a pen,
      You shadow forth to distant men,
   I read and felt that I was there:

   And trust me while I turned the page,
      And tracked you still on classic ground,
      I grew in gladness till I found
   My spirits in the golden age.

   For me the torrent ever poured
      And glistened--here and there alone
      The broad-limbed Gods at random thrown
   By fountain-urns;--and Naiads oared

   A glimmering shoulder under gloom
      Of cavern pillars; on the swell
      The silver lily heaved and fell;
   And many a slope was rich in bloom

   From him that on the mountain lea
      By dancing rivulets fed his flocks
      To him who sat upon the rocks,
   And fluted to the morning sea. (6)

The grand catalogue of scenes that begins this poem (culminating in a startlingly expansive reference to "all things fair") is said to be "shadow[ed] forth" by "such a pencil, such a pen." In practice, however, Tennyson values Lear's pencil over his pen, his sketching over his writing. He shows little or no interest in Lear's narrative of his journey (though various clues suggest that he did read it carefully). The emphasis, rather, is on the vast landscapes that the artist sketched, once he had managed to reach appropriate viewpoints: "Illyrian woodlands, echoing fails / Of water ... The long divine Peneian pass, / The vast Akrokeraunian walls, / Tomohrit, Athos." By browsing among images, and repeating the place-names associated with them, Tennyson constructs an imaginary pastoral world, more easily linked to the Greece of the poem's title than it is to the Albania that dominates Lear's Journals.

For Tennyson, the rigors of Lear's journey slip from view, leaving behind an idea, almost a sensation, of mobility. The impression of gliding through a mental landscape takes shape when Tennyson "turn[s] the page / And track[s] you still on classic ground." At first, the poet is reading a book; his physical engagement with this volume then translates into a kind of active hunting. Tennyson "track[s]" Lear, follows his traces, but prefers not to catch up. Instead, he is distracted by slopes that are "rich in bloom." Such slopes are widely distributed, everywhere from "mountain lea" to "morning sea." The poem's attractive final stanza almost makes a picture, yet not quite. One might expect dancing and fluting to go together; Tennyson keeps them apart. He is not describing a scene or even a pair of matching scenes, so much as demarcating a territory--a region of slopes through which a curious traveler might have to pace for hours, to reach both shepherd and flautist.

Tennyson's "To E. L." explores the interplay between domiciled poet and artist/narrator on the road. A later poem, inspired by W. G. Palgrave's Ulysses, rethinks this inquiry. Like "To E. L.," "To Ulysses" (1889) uses the stanzaic form of In Memoriam to praise a travel book (Ricks, 3:186-189). This second time around, the pull of home prevails. The poem begins with an eight-stanza comparison between Palgrave/Ulysses sojourning "Below the Line" (1. 5) and Tennyson wintering on the "quarried downs of Wight" (1. 32), where he strolls among the lovingly enumerated trees of his garden: elm, lime, cedar, ilex, yucca, and pine. By implication, he is almost as rooted as they are. This elaborate preface gives way to an evocative Miltonic catalogue of names, recalling the first six lines of the Lear tribute. For a moment it seems that the poem will orchestrate a transition much like the one in "To E. L.", where reading is transformed into tracking: "I followed line by line / Your leading hand, and came, my friend" (11. 45-46)-but after the enjambment at "friend," it is revealed that "came" is not in any sense a physical motion, a form of scouting. The stanza (and poem) abruptly concludes: "To prize your various book, and send / A gift of slenderer value, mine" (11.47-48). The delusion of movement within a distant landscape, a territory defined by vicarious wandering, is evoked, then subtly relinquished. Despite his declared enjoyment of Palgrave's essays, Tennyson remains untransported by them. As his poem's diminished ending suggests, travel books are the special delight of those who try not to stir abroad, preferring short walks on nearby quarried downs.

Lear's "Landscape Illustrations of Tennyson"

Soon after Lear's first (1843) encounter with Tennyson's poems, he started to plan a graphic tribute to them. He was especially fond of passages that evoked landscapes; it was to these that he would provide visual accompaniments. Although he never published his Tennyson book, an integral collection of 200 drawings, now in the Houghton Library at Harvard, shows the shape that it probably would have taken. (7)

Lear had two methods of linking poems with sketches. As he wrote to Emily Tennyson, he had divided his extracts from Tennyson "into 'suggestive' and 'Positive'....By 'suggestive' I mean such lines as 'vast images in glittering dawn' ... adaptable to ... a wide range of scenery. By 'positive' such as 'the long moated grange' ... which indicate perforce certain limits or landscape." (8) A slightly later sentence from the same letter seems to tip the balance, by insisting that positive images were at the heart of his project: "My desire has been to shew that Alfred Tennyson's ... descriptions of certain spots are as positively true as if drawn from the places themselves" (Selected Letters, p. 117). The emphasis, then, is on the act of documentation; even if Tennyson never got to most of the places he wrote about, Lear did, and will show the world that Tennyson was right, despite his dislike of travel. Yet work on "suggestive" passages does not disappear from the agenda. "Vast images in glittering dawn" remained unillustrated, but there were a number of related phrases, such as "Calm and still light on yon great plain," "The twilight died into the dark," or "A length of bright horizon rimmed the dark" that proved, in practice, just as accommodating; optical conditions were specified, but little else, leaving Lear free to introduce a wide range of subject matter. (9)

In ordering his plates, Lear again established a norm while insisting on his right to depart from it. As he stressed to Emily, "In general, only one or two subjects have been taken from a Poem. But some portions of Lord Tennyson's Poetry seemed to me to claim much fuller representation than others." (10) Lear lists the poems that have received "fuller representation": "The Palace of Art," "You Ask Me Why," "To E. L.," "Tropic Shades," and "The Daisy." In all these instances, phrases or verses are indeed illustrated with a remarkable range of plates. Lear does not, however, say why the poems he has emphasized "claim" so much attention nor (except the special case of "To E. L.") are the reasons for his choices immediately clear. The tour of Tennyson's poetry--along with the concurrent tour of the world--slows down or speeds up in a manner that is both compelling and unpredictable.

Lear's title makes a commitment to a genre. "Landscape Illustrations of Tennyson" identifies his project with a publishing phenomenon of the mid 1830s (a decade or so before the artist began developing his Tennyson tribute). Well-known "landscape illustration" volumes from the thirties presented specially commissioned plates of famous sites (Jerusalem, the Scottish Highlands, and so forth) as a visual counterpoint to such monumental collections as the Bible, Byron's poetry, and the Waverley novels. Landscape illustration books were typically collective endeavors, featuring a whole stable of artists, with J.W.M. Turner as the best-known contributor. In all of these volumes, the goal of the pictures was to document places described in an accompanying text.

It made sense to do for Tennyson something of what others had done for Byron or Scott. Yet, as time went on, Lear developed additional ambitions. As he noted in his diary, on August 1, 1882, his Tennyson book would have "a sort of resemblance" to Turner's Liber Studiorum ("book of studies"). (11) The Liber is a series of seventy-one mezzotint landscapes "illustrative of Landscape Compositions, viz. Historical, Mountainous, Pastoral, Marine, and Architectural." As this subtitle indicates, Turner was intent on producing a visual poetics of landscape. The Liber's scenes, consequently, were linked less by documentary significance than by some shared visual quality, effect, or theme. Groups of studies on announced topics or specified problems of composition were meant to have an analytic function. The Liber demonstrates how to look at, or even to make, a landscape.

In matching image to text, in orchestrating sequences of images, and in signalling generic affinities, Lear's "Landscape Illustrations" prefers a double approach. These different levels of organization tend to interconnect systematically. Positive matchups, implying a one-to-one correspondence between sketch and Tennysonian phrase, encourage steady serial progressions from stanza to stanza or poem to poem. Suggestive matchups, by contrast, invite a considerable density of illustration: many thematically linked plates for one phrase. In the first case, the images provided by Lear retain a primarily descriptive function, documenting the landscapes evoked by the poems. In the second case, the images prompt a prolonged lingering over themes or topics, such as Lear's fascination with fading light, a subject addressed in four consecutive plates for "Mariana" (Figures 2, 3). Cumulatively, "Landscape Illustrations" comes to seem like a "positive" work with a "suggestive" one struggling to get out of it; a landscape-illustration book on the verge of becoming Lear's Liber; and a tribute to a poet that frequently dissolves into an artist's topographical poetics.

Lear wavered over his project's goals and functions during several decades. These waverings were never resolved--one possible reason why Lear often seemed near to publishing "Landscape Illustrations," but never actually did so. Yet as a close perusal of the Houghton series suggests, he was right to persist in his folly, for the series' key moments are those in which its two programs do not so much alternate as somehow share the same space.



Lear achieves his most striking effects in those poems fully represented. He treats "The Daisy," a fond reminiscence of one of Tennyson's actual journeys (a tour with Emily), as a "positive," landscape-illustration sequence extended in a "suggestive" manner; lines about Italy are matched to appropriate images of such places as Monaco, Como, the Sanctuary of Lampedusa, and the Alps, until, suddenly, at the very end, the artist offers a vista of one of the nineteenth century's most surprising archaeological finds, the city of Petra in Palestine (explicitly labeled as such, Lear's standard practice), linked to the geographically vague phrase "rosy blossom in hot ravine" (also written on the plate). This breakaway from a familiar round of Italianate landmarks into a scene from one of the artist's most dangerous, ambitious journeys feels like an abrupt stretching of the poem's imagined limits. (12)

"You Ask Me Why" and "Locksley Hall," nationalistic expostulations whose narrators threaten to quit England for tropical climes as a protest against personal or political abominations, are transformed even more drastically. For where Tennyson's heroes think the tropics a second-best alternative, Lear's plates celebrate travel to a southern clime: in "You Ask Me Why," by fourteen successive images matched to the tag line "I will see before I die / The palms and temples of the South" (Figure 4), in "Locksley Hall" by nine successive images matched to the phrase, "Beneath the tropic shades and palms in clusters." (13) Lear focuses exclusively on these lines, each of which generates a kind of landscape album. Palms turn out to be not one thing but many: "palm" is a suggestive rather than a positive cue. Lear offers his reader not so much a lesson in Tennyson as one in the startling range of botanical variation across the globe.

"The Palace of Art," perhaps the most obvious choice for illustration, zeroes in on Tennyson's ekphrastic verses, juxtaposing the poet's descriptions of imaginary paintings with Lear's sketches of places he had visited. The artist carefully provides images of paintings imagined by Tennyson, but his care in conveying geographical realities he knew first-hand does not so much confirm as negate the claustrophobic effect of the poem itself. Unlike the self-immured speaker of "Palace," Lear found that his all-enveloping pursuit of art required that he spend much of his life abroad. Illustrating "Palace" as Lear does changes its point. The poem becomes a tour not of art but of the world.

Each of these treatments has its own peculiarities, yet the governing principle is that intensity of documentation can release new energies, transforming the meaning of Tennyson's poems or turning the spotlight from the poems to the artist. The more ardently Lear piles up palms and temples, for instance, the more expressive his project becomes. The most nuanced and haunting example of this expressiveness is "To E. L.," Lear's own Tennyson poem. He visualizes the first five lines with a dogged closeness, one image per phrase, and per page, as thus: "Ilyrian woodlands" (Figure 5), "Echoing falls /Of water" (Figure 6), "Sheets of summer glass" (Figure 7), "The long divine Peneian Pass" (Figure 8).


Tennyson's poetic condensation of the Albanian Journals unfolds into a series of expansive views. Then the expansiveness intensifies--and, as a consequence, overwhelms the lyric. This happens in several stages. At "the vast Akrokeraunian Walls" Lear abandons his previously painstaking effort to mark the progression of the verses; rejecting the rhythm of one plate, one phrase, he keeps producing views of those immovable Walls--five of these in a row (Figures 9, 10). Then comes "Tomohrit" (another huge obstacle, allowed four plates), then a plunge into "Athos, all things fair" (the phrase, as usual, marked on the images themselves) that occupies no less than twenty-seven plates and is restricted, despite "all things fair," to Athos alone.

Lear had wanted to visit the complex of monasteries at Athos during what became the Albanian trip, but an outbreak of plague in nearby parts of Greece stopped him. When he finally succeeded, in 1856, on his third try, he found Athos wonderful and horrible. Wonderful because, from a distance, it was so intricately beautiful, an unending complex of picturesque mountainside sites; horrible because, close up, it turned out to be a virtual prison for ignorant, dirty, hopelessly celibate males. (Celibacy was a problem Lear faced too. (14)) In near-despair, he wrote to Emily, "What a place--what a strange place.... God's world maimed & turned upside down." (15)







Illustrations' treatment of Athos finds its own way to register both picturesqueness and entrapment. It does so largely through genre-mixing. In the process of slowing down, and eventually coming to a halt, Lear's treatment of "To E. L." leans away from landscape illustration that documents Tennyson's poem towards a Liber style of presentation, addressing the myriad artistic problems of depicting an intricate, spectacular place. However, this shift of emphasis is far from complete. The reader/viewer is still taking the landscape illustration tour of Southern Europe--it is just that the tour has stalled. Or half-stalled: the plates show different features of a complex site, emphasizing variation and novelty; meanwhile, the poem keeping repeating the same eternal mantra, "Athos."

Caught on Athos; caught between genres, pulled between loyalty to the demands of verbal rhythms and those of visualization--then a breakthrough. The sequence finally reaches its four concluding plates presenting "all things fair" (a phrase which is now detached from "Athos," since the monasteries are evidently in the past). "All things fair," the most inclusive or "suggestive" verbal cue in the whole project, is applied in turn to Corfu, Constantinople, the Roman campagna, and, finally, a panoramic view of the Himalayas. Lear is traveling again, at a faster clip than ever.

Travel got Lear's mind off of his troubles. Nonsense helped too. While he was laboring over his 200 drawings, he proves to have been concocting his own verses "whereby to recall the Tennyson lines of my illustrations":
   Delirious Bulldogs;--echoing, calls
      My daughter,--green as summer grass:--
      The long supine Plebeian ass,
   The nasty crockery boring falls. (16)

Parodying "The vast Akrokeraunian walls," "The nasty crockery boring falls" celebrates fragmentation, destructiveness, and the provoking power of gravity. It is quite a triumph, one feels, that the nasty crockery has fallen. Any moment now it will smash on the floor. In this secret echo, produced by a green daughter (who may, in fact, be mimicking delirious bulldogs), one can feel vast Akrokeraunian walls, as well as crockery, shatter to bits. Another barrier down: the journey continues. (17)

Journals of a Landscape Painter intimates that there is a heroic side to the petty, yet absorbing, struggles of the traveler; its plates, contrastingly, mark episodes of rapt artistic concentration: moments out of doors and far from home, when the artist is finally allowed an opportunity to do what he came to do, to draw what he sees before him. Lear's Tennyson project works differently. The project reveals little or nothing about the tribulations of sketching while traveling; it is like an out-of-body journey, from which difficulties with donkeys, weather, and nocturnally chanting Albanians are banned. Yet the aesthetic premises of these two books have at least one critical point of intersection. The financially shrewd approach to producing a collection of landscape plates would have been to execute a set of large-scale paintings, then model smaller etchings or engravings on them; these miniaturized, mass-reproduced images could appear in the book, next to the appropriate verses, even while advertising the virtues of the larger, more exclusive, and pricier works on which they were based. Now and then, as he developed his tribute, Lear leaned towards such an approach; he would periodically turn his energies to producing elaborate oils on Tennysonian subjects, treated as a desirable prelude to work in book illustration. (His house at San Remo featured, for a while, a special Tennyson gallery; he worked hard, in later years, on an enormous "Enoch Arden.") Yet the Tennyson paintings, like his others, either moved slowly or failed to sell at all--and in either event took a long time to finish. Over the long run, then, it was newly made sketches (produced at home, but evoking older drawings, executed in situ) that became the essential medium for Lear's 200 evocations of Tennysonian landscape.

The Houghton series' least effective plates function as miniaturized, over-crowded, and more or less monochromatic versions of Lear's oils (which accommodate a wide range of picturesque details in super-saturated PreRaphaelite colors). The most effective aim at starker effects. Drawn with a thin brush or thick pen, over which washes of grey have been lain, many of them feature crude outlines and blots of ink (which have to be interpreted, not without difficulty, as specific objects or organisms). On occasion, Lear appears to be working too hard, or straining his ever-weaker eyesight. But his artistic choices convey more than disability and age. He is moving, sometimes cautiously, sometimes with abandon, towards the territory explored by Turner in the so-called "Little Liber," a group of unpublished plates made almost a decade after the rest of the Liber series and executed by the artist himself in pure mezzotint. As Anne Hollander has commented, the images of the "Little Liber" manage to combine delicacy of tone and black brooding drama in a way that the medium of mezzotint supports. (18) Lear's fascination with Turner may have pushed him in this direction; so, one might suspect, did his love for Tennyson. Throughout the Illustrations, he betrays a special fondness for Tennysonian lines or phrases that adumbrate vast spaces where night is approaching quickly. The viewer of the corresponding plates may feel at times like a bat, relying on a sonar system to navigate a cave of indefinite dimensions. Yet late, slanting light occasionally makes detail vivid (Figures 4, 11, 12, 13). This kind of treatment confirms quintessential features of Tennyson's poems; it also derives from experiments with scale, emptiness, and darkness eluding any specific literary referent. In his middle years, Lear had developed a largely negative relation to sketches. He made them quickly, for money; mediocre overproduction drove down his reputation. These later sketchlike images, for the Tennyson book, have a different impact; indeed, they suggest a synthesizing argument. If the artist can do the work of the poet and the frazzled wanderer of the visionary stay-at-home, the medium of the sketch can supersede that of the oil painting, inheriting its dignity, its claims to elevated attention, and its effects of comprehensiveness, even while proclaiming its origins in the hardships of actual journeys.




Lear's rediscovery of the aesthetic, rather than economic, advantage of sketch formats strengthened and pervaded the Tennyson project; it may also have complicated the artist's efforts to get his book published. An abbreviated version of Illustrations, which appeared in a limited edition soon after his death, turned a small group of his plates into engravings of a rather humdrum sort. (19) Lear himself had struggled to prevent this sort of disaster. At midcentury, lithography had been the default choice for landscape plates like those in the Albanian Journals. (Turner's mezzotint experiments were more unusual.) Some three decades later, seeking an equally useful but more up-to-date format, Lear embraced Autotype. In 1868, Joseph Swan had invented this "carbon process" for producing lasting photographic images. Swan's innovation had a major impact. The British Museum decided for the first time to allow objects from its collection to be photographed--as long as Autotype was used for printing the negatives. Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites also embraced Autotype as a medium of reproduction, especially for drawings with delicate lines. (20) Art history monographs, photographs, and facsimiles of the Claude and Turner Libers appeared in Autotype versions; Lear's own copy of the Liber Studiorum (Stopford Brooke's edition, 1882-4) was among them. (21)

Lear's enthusiasm for Autotype was many-faceted, yet had its limits. He was serious enough to pay the Autotype Company to produce a run of trial Tennyson plates, serious enough to return to the company for subsequent experiments. His hopes were high, yet the results invariably failed to satisfy him. Part of the problem, as well as the allure, was the medium he had chosen. Photographic processes had not only gained in popularity as a means of reproduction in book publishing, they were more and more frequently used to make direct records of landscapes, thus bypassing drawing and painting altogether. William Russell Sedgefield's Photographic Delineations of the Scenery, Architecture and Antiquities of Great Britain and Ireland appeared in installments, from 1845 to 1855; the panoramic experiments of Victor Albert Prout's The Thames from London to Oxford in Forty Photographs followed in 1862. Even as Lear struggled with Autotype, Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads (1886; photos by P. H. Emerson and T. F. Goodall) made the case for a kind of photographic Impressionism. These "photobooks," as a recent history has called them, were, in their way, the successors to the magnificent lithographic collections of landscape plates issued in the Romantic period. (22)

Sketching was evocative in its squiggles, elisons, and absences; photography exact in its automatic registration of optical stimuli. Lear saw that the Autotype could potentially eternalize the sketch, fixing it in place even while accentuating its suggestive and elusive qualities. Yet what happened in practice was, of course, rather different. Within a few decades after Lear discarded his trial Autotypes, photographers had, in a way, usurped his territory, undertaking on their own account the kind of homage with which he had so long struggled. High points like Alvin Langdon Coburn's twenty-four frontispieces for the New York Edition of Henry James (1907-09) and Hermann Lea's Thomas Hardy's Wessex (1913) offer extensive accumulations of landscape photographs (or in Coburn's case, landscapes and still-lifes) intended to evoke the imaginative worlds created by well-known authors. (23)

By the early twentieth century, Lear's Illustrations might have looked somewhat obsolescent. Still, one could not say that either Coburn or Lea resolved the difficulties Lear had confronted. Lea's book reverts to the 1830s landscape-illustration craze, accentuating its documentary features. Lea worked closely with Hardy in choosing his sites and views; he provides an exemplary author-centered kind of collection, where the visual artist does his best to disappear into his own material. James encouraged Coburn to push in the opposite direction. The New York Edition frontispieces sustain a mysteriously roundabout connection with the novels that they accompany. Coburn manages to be faithful to James's artistry by highlighting his own; he produces a group of photographs remarkable for their eerie indeterminacy. Manner trumps matter. Lear's attempt to grasp both horns of the dilemma, to become a self-effacing documentarist and a virtuoso visionary at once, might seem, by contrast, self-defeating, but this impossible level of ambition was what kept him going. His Illustrations still have the charisma of a glorious trap the artist has set for himself.


(1) Anne Barton, "Delirious Bulldogs and Nasty Crockery: Tennyson as Nonsense Poet," VP 47, no. 1 (2009): 313-330, appeared as this essay went to press, offering a parallel treatment of topics also considered here (including geographic and textual coordinates in Tennyson and the hardships of travels as treated by Lear's Albanian Journals).

(2) [Richard Ford], review of Fanny Kemble, A Year of Consolation, and Edward Lear, Illustrated Excursions in Italy, Quarterly Review 81 (June-September 1847): 464.

(3) Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania (London, 1851), pp. 2, 6.

(4) A friend of Lear's once described his out-of-doors routine: He "would sit down, and taking his block [of paper] ... would lift his spectacles, and gaze for several minutes at the scene through a monocular glass he always carried; then, laying down the glass, and adjusting his spectacles, he would put on paper the view before us, mountain range, villages, and foreground, with a rapidity and accuracy that inspired ... awestruck admiration." Quoted in Philip Hofer, Edward Lear as a Landscape Draughtsman (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1951), p. 12.

(5) See Lear's 1885 letter to Emily Tennyson (intended as a dedication page for the proposed "Landscape Illustrations of Poems by Tennyson"), in Ruth Pitman, Edward Lear's Tennyson (Manchester: Carcanet, 1988), p. 33.

(6) See The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks, 3 vols. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987), 2:465-467.

(7) Pitman, pp. 27-31, describes the various trial versions of Lear's Tennyson project.

(8) Letter to Emily Tennyson, October 5, 1852, in Lear, Selected Letters, ed. Vivien Noakes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), pp. 116-117.

(9) The captions for Lear's Tennyson book give poem title, line being illustrated and place depicted. I use Lear's words (generally written in beneath or on the images) when indicating place but have preferred to cite lines using Christopher Rick's three-volume Tennyson edition: In Memoriam, 11.9; "The Day-Dream," section "The Departure," 1. 24; "The Gardener's Daughter," 1. 177.

(10) Draft of Lear's dedication to Emily Tennyson, in Pitman, p. 33.

(11) See Vivien Noakes, Edward Lear: 1812-1888, exhibition catalogue of The Royal Academy of Arts (London, 1985), p. 134. It should be noted that while Turner's Liber was reconstructed by engravers and publishers as a book, it had originally been a Liber in name only, a set of prints that remained unbound.

(12) For the amazing Petra story, see G. W. Bowersock, "Edward Lear in Petra," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (September 1990): 309-320.

(13) Not all the sites depicted by Lear are technically tropical; perhaps one might better refer to palm-friendly territory.

(14) In the late 1840s, Lear had a crush on his friend Franklin Lushington, but then Lushington got married and spent less time with Lear. Later, Lear occasionally talked about getting married himself, but he never did (Vivien Noakes, Edward Lear The Life of a Wanderer [Boston, Houghton Mifflin 1968], pp. 148, 210).

(15) Letter to Emily Tennyson, October 9, 1856, Selected Letters, pp. 138-139.

(16) "Now do you call this a long letter? Or don't you? I shall stick double postage on it, and fill up the rest with some parodies I have been obliged to make, whereby to recall the Tennyson lines of my illustrations: beginning with these mysterious and beautiful verses" (Letter to Chichester Fortescue, September 12, 1873, Later Letters, pp. 139-140).

(17) Barton, "Delirious Bulldogs," p. 319, suggests that the fall of the nasty crockery evokes Lear's loss of his canteen on a steep slope. I find the crockery's destruction more of a triumphant breakthrough.

(18) Anne Hollander, Moving Pictures (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), p. 279. The Little Liber plates are rare. There is a good reproduction of one of the best, which makes an instructive comparison with the darker Lear drawings for "Illustrations," in "Shields Lighthouse, ca. 1829-30," in Christopher White, English Landscape 1630-1850: Drawings, Prints & Books from the Paul Mellon Collection (New Haven: British Art Center, 1977), cat. Nos. 141-142 (Plate cxxviii and cxxix).

(19) See Poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson; illustrated by Edward Lear (London : Boussod, Valadon & Co. 1889). There are apparently only 100 copies; I have examined the two in the Beinecke Library at Yale University.

(20) J. Moore, Celebration of Innovation: A History of Autotype 1868-2005 (McDermid Autotype, 2005 [privately printed company history]), provides an informative introduction to the history of the Autotype Company and the Victorian reception of the Autotype process.

(21) Richard Earlom's etchings of Claude's Liber Veritatis (published by John Boydell in 1775) were themselves reproduced in Autotype, in an edition from the Autotype Company (3 vols., 1872). On Lear's purchase of the Liber, see Noakes, Edward Lear: 1812-1888, p. 134. Brooke's Liber inspired many artists beside Lear. After studying it, the (much younger) Frank Short, guided and strongly encouraged by Ruskin, undertook to provide a new set of etchings and mezzotints based on Turner's original drawings (and on earlier reproductions of them). Short's Liber project occupied him periodically through his career. (He died in 1945.)

(22) See Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, The Photobook: A History, vol. 1 (London: Phaidon Press, 2004). Lithography proved, in the long run, to be rather beautifully combinable with photography, a twist Lear probably did not anticipate.

(23) On Coburn's suggestiveness, see Charles Harmon, "Pictures of Alvin Langdon Coburn's Frontispieces to Henry James's New York Edition: Pictures of an Institutional Imaginary," in The Victorian Illustrated Book, ed. Richard Maxwell (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 2002), pp. 297-331.
COPYRIGHT 2010 West Virginia University Press, University of West Virginia
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Maxwell, Richard
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2010
Previous Article:Inventing poetry and pictorialism in Once a Week: a magazine of visual effects.
Next Article:Embodying the city in A London Garland.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters