Edward Lear (1812-88) was born in London, the twentieth of twenty-one children. His passion for painting led to a commission from the Earl of Derby to paint landscapes in Italy and Greece. At one time he was even art-master of Queen Victoria. Although he exhibited  in the Royal Academy from 1859 to 1873, he had to rely on the benevolence of friends for his work, and worries over money continued up to his last year. His paintings are now much sought after, even if he is best remembered for The Book of Nonsense, written for the grandchildren of the Earl of Derby.




 Lear’s journey to Albania in 1848 had not been arranged; the idea of it took place through a accidental encounter with Sir Stratford Canning, the British Ambassador at Constantinople who acquired the indispensable documents to travel across the Ottoman Empire. Setting off from Salonica, Lear headed north to Shkoder, then south to Corfu, Parga and Arta before going west again to finish his journey at Mount Olympus and the Vale of Tempe. As he travelled along he was able to see wonderful scenery and an enticing and assorted number of characters – Greek dragomen, Turkish pashas, untaught frontier guards and awkward innkeepers. He spent his nights in khans struggling for room with animals, and his days running around with his sketchbook, trying to get rid of aggressive dogs and often also the local population in his desire to record the magnificence of the countryside.












9 September to 12 November 1848


September 9, 1848


    After severe illness in Greece and repeated subsequent  attacks of that persevering enemy, fever, six weeks of repose in the house of the British Embassy, on the banks of the Bosporus, under the care of the kindest of families, have at length restored energy, if not perfect health; and as the summer flies and the time for travelling is shortened, a long-anticipated plan of visiting parts of ancient Greece, Albania, etc., must be put into effect now, or not at all. To see the classic vale of Tempe, the sacred mountain of Athos ad the romantic Yannina have always been among my wishes; and I had long ago determined on making, previously to returning to England , a large collection of sketches illustrative of the landscape of Greece. So, now that change of air and place is desirable as a matter of health, my motives for making this journey are now more powerful than ever and overcome even the fear of renewed illness on the way. C. M. C. [Charles Church, Greek scholar and linguist] is already gone before me to the Troad, and from thence will meet me in the peninsula of Athos, whence we shall pursue our travels together as heretofore.


    3 p. m. – Came on board the Ferdinando, an Austrian steamer running between Constantinople and Salonica; and a pretty place does it seem to pass  two or three days in! Every point of the lower deck – all of it – is crammed with Turks, Jews, Greeks, Bulgarians, wedged together with a density compared to which a crowded Gravesend steamer is emptiness: a section of a fig-drum, or of a herring-barrel is the only apt simile for this extraordinary crowd of recumbent human beings, who are all going to Salonica, as a starting-point for Thessaly, Bosnia, Wallachia, or any part of Northern Turkey. This motley cargo is not of ordinary occurrence; but the second Salonica steamer, which should have started today, has fallen indisposed in its wheels or boiler; so we have a double load for our share.


    Walking carefully over my fellow passengers, I reached the first-class part of the deck – a small, raised triangle, railed off from the throng below, half of which is allotted to Christians (the Austrian Consul at Salonica and his family being the only Christians besides myself), and the other half tabooed for the use of a harem of Turkish females, who entirely cover the floor with a diversity of robes, pink, blue, chocolate, and amber; pea, sea, olive, bottle, pale, and dark green; above which parterre of colours are numerous heads, all wrapped in white muslin, excepting as many pairs of eyes undistinguishably similar. There is a good cabin below; but owing to a row of obstructive Mussulmen who choose to cover up the grated opening with shutters, that they may sit quietly upon them to smoke, it is quite dark, so I remain on deck. We are a silent community: the smoking Turks are silent, and so is the strange harem. The Consul and his wife, and their two pretty daughters, are silent, because they fear cholera at Salonica – which the young ladies declare is ‘un pessimo esilio  [an odious banishment] – and because they are regretting northern friends. I am silent, from much thought and some weakness consequent on long illness: and the extra cargo in the lower deck are silent also – perhaps because they have not room to talk. At four, the anchor is weighed and we begin to paddle away from the many domed mosques and bright minarets of  Constantinople and the gay sides of the Golden Horn, with its caïques and its cypresses towering against the deepening blue sky, when lo! we do not turn towards the sea, but proceed ignominiously to tow a great coal-ship all the way to Buyukdere, so there is a moving panorama of all the Bosporus bestowed on us gratis – Kandili, Baltaliman, Bebek, Yenikoi, Therapia, with its well-known walks and pines and planes, and lastly Buyukdere, where we leave our dingy charge and return, evening darkening over the Giant’s Hill, Unkiar Skelessi, and Anatoli Hissar, till we sail forth into the broad Sea of Marmora, leaving Scutari and the towers of wonderful Stamboul first pale and distinct in the light of the rising moon, and then glittering and lessening on the calm horizon, till they, and the memory that I have been among them for seven weeks, seem alike part of the world of dreams.




September 10




    Half the morning we lie off Gallipoli, taking in merchandise and indulging in eccentric casualties – demolishing the bowsprit of one vessel and injuring divers others, for which we are condemned to the three hours of clamour and arrangement of compensation. In the afternoon we wait off the Dardanelles, not an inviting town as beheld from the sea; C. M. C. (says the Consul’s son) sets off for Athos in two days to meet me. Again we move, and day wears away amid perplexing twinges foreshadowing fever (for your Greek fever when once he has fairly secured you is your Old Man of the Sea for a weary while; you tremble – and fly to quinine as your only chance of escape). Towards four or five the mountains of the Troad fade away in the distance; later we pass near the isles of Imbros and Samothrace; and later yet, when the unclouded sun has sunk down, a mountain pile of awful form looms sublimely in the west – rising from the glassy calm waters against the clear amber western sky: it is Mount Athos.