How pleasant to know Mr.Lear!"

Who has written such volumes of stuff!

Some think him ill-tempered and queer,

But a few think him pleasant enough."

The name of British poet and painter Edward Lear brings to mind  literary nonsense especially the limericks he is known the world over for. The unlikely love story between an Owl and a Pussy Cat he served up to readers with the “runcible spoon” has continued to fascinate generations of readers, young and old. While his fame as a writer  is well known, his work as an artist remains less known.Even lesser  known to many Sri Lankans may be the fact that Lear, during a brief visit to Ceylon in 1874, painted a small but fascinating  collection of watercolors, capturing the sights he encountered as he traveled  along the Southern Coast of the country and then onto  Ratnapura and Kandy.

Edward Lear  was born on 12 May 1812 to a middle-class family in  Holloway, England  and made a name as an artist from the age 15 and developed  an exceptional talent in ornithological and botanical drawings . “The appetite for books on birds and animals had grown since the voyages of Captain Cook in the 1760s and 70s ,as more and more expeditions brought back unfamiliar plants and specimens of animals , birds, reptiles and fish,” writes  Jenny Uglow’s in her recently published book on his life, “ Mr. Lear -A Life of Art and Nonsense. In  it she describes him as a man in a hurry,  ‘ running about on railroads ‘ from London to country estates  and boarding steamships to Italy , Corfu, India and Palestine.”

It was  his life as a wonderer that  brought him to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) in November 1874 for a visit that lasted till 12 December that year.

Lear ,accompanied by his loyal Greek travel companion  Giorgio Kokali  had reached Mumbai, India on 22 November 1873 and stayed in the subcontinent for one and half years, crisscrossing it by every kind of transport. “He went from west to east, north to south, from the Himalayas to Sri Lanka, his long -dreamed-of Ceylon,” writes Uglow. They had sailed to Ceylon in the latter part of November 1874 to “get away from the Malabar heat. “They had stayed on the island for a month, but their stay was “troubled and weary". “They walked on the beaches and Lear sketched the bread fruit trees and the boats, but it rained, and he was tired,” writes Uglow.

Their visit to Ceylon turned troublesome mainly because Giorgio fell sick with dysentery at the start of December and Lear feared for his friend’s life.  “I go to bed, but with no light heart. Pray God he may recover!,” Lear wrote in  his diary describing those worrisome days in Ceylon.  After Giorgio recovered from his illness, they cut short their trip and returned to the mainland but during his brief stay in Ceylon, he  divided his time between Colombo, Galle, Matara, Ratnapura and Kandy drawing watercolor paintings and taking in the sights and sounds around him, most of it fascinating but some bothersome.

Galle Road

He arrived in Colombo by steamboat on 9 November. “ It seems a pretty place, but  no more,” he wrote of his first impression of the city. The trouble at the port to have his goods cleared through customs made him comment, “ …. and I must say this first encounter with Serendibbians by no means prepossessed me in their favour.”

In Colombo he was invited to the  Queen's House by the British Governor William Gregory and Lear described Queen’s  House as a “ a  very queer place, galleries  endless; but one may remark on the lovely matting.”

Once he ventured out of Colombo and  was on his way along the southern coastline, he was fascinated by what greeted his eyes. “  Certainly the lofty, lofty coco-lined roads  of South Ceylon are wonderful and so, on all sides is the crammed  luxuriance of a thousand sorts of beautiful vegetation; but beyond these, and now and then a brilliant space of shore and sea…..,” he wrote in his journal.


In Ratnapura,  Lear had stayed with Hugh Nevill of the Ceylon Civil Service  who was the son of a close family friend William Nevill.  “Hugh Nevill’s house, and Hugh Nevill coming to meet me. Nice large living rooms, but bedrooms fearfully ultra- uncomfortable, doorless, etc. Sherry and quinine. My visit here is a duty  to the memory of dear William and Mary Nevill, but I fear it will not be  a pleasure,”  Lear wrote in his Indian journal.

On 12 December ,1874 he sailed away from Ceylon . “So ! I am already far from Ceylon, for so many years the end of my landscape painting  aspirations ! ,” Lear said in his journal entry of the day.

“The breadfruit and jak trees were special favorites, with the ubiquitous coconut vistas a particularly enticing draw. He sketched compulsively for almost three weeks…..He travelled by mail coach and one-horse trap to the South and Ratnapura, and train from Colombo to Kandy and back,” bibliographer  H.A.I.Goonetileke said in an  article he wrote in 1996 on “Edward Lear: Paintings and Drawings in Sri Lanka.”

Cemetery in Galle 

The bulk of Lear’s Ceylon paintings feature the south coastline. A total of 76 watercolor sketches and drawings relating to Ceylon have been identified, catalogued, and described by Goonetilake in 1973. Of them 68 were done while in the island, two  in 1884 and six in 1885.

On an  unfinished picture that was on his easel when Lear died on 29 January 1888 was a  huge painting of ‘Enoch Arden’s Island’,  a painting inspired by the narrative poem of Lord Alfred Tennyson, one his closest confidants.  Taking his cue from Tennyson’s poem on  Enoch Arden, the sailor  shipwrecked on his  desert island , and also from his own travels, Lear wrote to Edith Holman Hunt ( wife of artist William Holman Hunt who taught Lear painting)  that the subject would be ‘backed up by innumerable studies’ and would ‘introduce every kind of flower & tree I saw in India and Ceylon &c &c.’

Bread Fruit leaf 

The entire Lear material consisting of his journal, diary, and water colours, and drawings relating to this Indian expedition is in the Houghton Library of Harvard University in the USA. Some of Lear’s Ceylon watercolors are reproduced here with permission of the Houghton Library. (CK)

Between Ratnapura & Awissawella