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Edward Lear on the Amalfi Coast

Giovanni Camelia, Marco Graziosi & Federico Guida. ‘Edward Lear Visioni Inedite della Costa di Amalfi‘.  Amalfi: 2018, Centro di Cultura e Storia Amalfitana. 149 pages. ISBN 978-88-88283-46-3

As a traveling landscape artist, Edward Lear visited Sicily and the Italian South extensively in 1842-7. The trips were well documented by the scenes he drew and in his letters, diaries and books. Although his visits included the Amalfi Coast, his sojourns there went unmentioned in his writing, which explains  perhaps why the large number of drawings and watercolours he produced there have never attracted as much attention and analysis in Italy as his depictions of other places in the South

In 1838 and 1844 Lear stayed in La Cava, a village set back in a high valley among the hills a dozen miles from the coast. He made his first visit at twenty-six with another young artist, James Unwins, whose uncle, a familiar of the place favoured by the English, was the well-established painter Thomas Unwins. This volume reproduces more than a 100 items Lear completed on the coast that  were the object of a 2017 exposition in Amalfi. It also publishes for the first time a long letter that Lear wrote from La Cava on June 10, 1838 to his sister Anne in London. Given Lear’s intimacy with Anne who had been his surrogate mother, he boyishly poured out domestic detail:

“Now what do you think I live for? today, for instance, we had coffee & eggs at 5—at 12, beautiful macaroni soup,—boiled beef & mutton cutlets, strawberries, cherries, & a bottle of wine each,—& at supper, macaroni & an omelette, wine & oranges—to which you are to add lodging,—& now guess? actually, for 8 carlinos is all this—which is equivalent to 2/8 [two shillings and eight pence] of our money—daily!!!”

Cheap, cool and picturesque, La Cava suited the British middle-classes to a T.  The other heaven of the bible-thumpers could wait.

“But as yet, I have not given you much idea of the environs of the place, which is really a sort of Paradise: It is a sort of Devonshire—all rich Valleys—but with larger hills & the most exquisite buildings—churches—convents—villages—imaginable. […] this most lovely place: as a summer residence, I know of no place in southern Italy at all liked it—for being so high it is always cool—& the variety of walks about it are quite past belief”.

The handsome, lavishly illustrated book moves from earthy detail to the history of ideas. The authors show exactly what Lear meant by ‘picturesque’. His pictorial culture had been shaped by the great Nicolas Poussin’s guiding principle: Nature, a landscape, had to be reduced to its essential lines, to its architecture, so to speak. To this Lear added  the view of the Romantic era that the picturesque wasn’t in the quaintness of little things, but in the awesomeness of the breathtakingly large. He was at one with Johann Wolfgang Goethe who saw nature as “astonishing, grandiose and full of wonder”.

Lear’s enthusiasm, near ecstatic at times, for the sights he sees gives the lie to the picture some have drawn of him as a melancholic bachelor driven into exile by his awkward personalty, diffidence and inability to conclude. The authors trace a portrait of a small boy who loved to draw, shaken by a difficult childhood, and gripped by an epileptic aliment that would never leave him. Engaging with determination on a difficult path, passing through a period as a fine portrayer of birds, his interest shifted to landscape. His skills increased. Chance circumstance led him to travel, awakening a restless curiosity about faraway places that would never leave him. At the same time, he forever struggled to please, overcoming what he considered his physical and temperamental drawbacks. He became a kind of good-humoured clown, an entertainer, an ‘amuseur'. It was the source of what posterity most honours him for, not what he called his topographical artistry, but his Nonsense graphics and limericks, his unique poetry.

Peter Byrne


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