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Artist NameEdward Lear (1812-1888)
TitlePhilae, Egypt
Date of Artwork1854
Size13 5/8 x 18 7/8 in. • 346 x 479 mm
SignedInscribed and dated

Further Information

Edward LEAR
London 1812-1888 San Remo

The Temple at Philae on the Nile

Watercolour over pen and ink
30.4 x 47.8 cm 13 5/8 x 18 7/8 inches

Inscribed and dated ll. in pencil and lr. in ink Philae./{31 Jany-4 Feb} 1854 and in pencil 85/P.7/159

Renowned for his nonsense rhymes so familiar to all, Lear was an outstanding landscape painter in both oil and watercolour. His drawings in particular have captivated collectors since his own day and led to the formation of considerable collections, most notably in the Houghton Library at Harvard

Lear expressed his excitement about the first excursion in 1849 to Egypt in a letter to a close friend, Lord Fortescue:

"the contemplation of Egypt must fill the mind, the artistic mind I mean, with great food for the rumination of long years" (12 February 1848 quoted in ed. Lady Strachey, The Letters of Edward Lear, 1907, pp.8-9).

The trip did not disappoint, and Lear was deeply struck by the powerful colours and light of Egypt. Indeed, he enjoyed the country so much that he made another trip during the winter of 1853-4, arriving in Cairo on the 18th December 1853. He had planned to travel around Egypt with the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt and initially intended to wait for his friend in the capital city before commencing his travels. However, he developed a fever and as Cairo was damp he decided that he would leave at once for the Nile and Upper Egypt.

Lear's letters from this trip to his sister Ann are full of delight about his travels up the Nile; he described the river as "magnificent...with endless villages - hundreds & hundreds on its banks, all fringed with palms, & reflected in the water; - the usual accompaniments of buffaloes, camels etc. abound, but the multitude of birds it is utterly impossible to describe, - geese, pelicans, plovers, eagles, hawks, cranes, herons, hoopoes, doves, pigeons, king fishers & many others. The most beautiful feature is the number of boats which look like giant moths, - & sometimes there is a fleet of 20 or 30 in sight at once." (Lear to Ann, 4th January 1854, as quoted in Noakes, 1968, p.122).

A watercolour of the same view and date of the temple but taken from further away is in the colletion of the Ashmolean Museum. The promontory from which the artist sketched the present view is clearly visible. This is a particularly fine example of Lear's drawing technique in pen and ink, with colour notes made for the subsequent addition of the watercolour at the end of the day.