Edward Lear

The Monastery of Simopetra on Mount Athos


Not on display

Edward Lear 1812–1888
Watercolour and ink on paper
Support: 314 × 486 mm
Bequeathed by Miss Eveline Annie Dear 1980

Catalogue entry


Inscribed ‘Simopetra [in Greek letters]/11.Sept. 1856’ in ink bottom right, and with notes of colour, vegetation etc. in pencil and ink in various places; numbered ‘75’ in pencil bottom right
Watercolour and pen and red-brown ink over slight pencil outlines, on paper 12 1/4 × 19 3/8 (31.5 × 48.6)
Bequeathed by Miss Eveline Annie Dear 1980
Prov: ...; Walker's Galleries, from whom purchased by Agnew's 1952; purchased from Agnew's by Eveline Annie Dear 1953.
Exh: 48th Annual Exhibition of Early English Watercolours, Walker's Galleries, June–July 1952 (70, as ‘Monastery on a Rock’); 85th Annual Exhibition of Watercolour Drawings, 2nd edition, Thos Agnew & Sons Ltd, February 1953 (36).

T03168 was drawn during Lear's tour of Mount Athos in August–September 1856. Mount Athos (Ayios Oros, or Holy Mountain, so called because a theocracy of monks had been established there since 963 AD) occupies the most easterly promontory of the Khalkidhiki Peninsula which projects from Macedonia into the Aegean Sea. Lear had already made two tours of Greece, in 1848 and 1849, but on each of these had been disappointed of his wish to visit Mount Athos. He returned to Greece in the autumn of 1855. In August 1856, attended by his newly-recruited Suliot servant Georgio (who was to remain in Lear's service for twenty-six years), he set off on a tour of the monasteries of Mount Athos which lasted nearly two months.

The tour proved arduous and debilitating (first Georgio, then Lear himself fell ill with fever), but Lear succeeded in making drawings of all the twenty principal monasteries and many of their dependencies, and of the landscape; according to Angus Davidson (Edward Lear, 2nd ed., 1950, p.98), he made fifty drawings in all. T03168 looks inland towards the monastery. A larger watercolour view of Simopetra, taken from along the coast and showing a side view of the monastery, overlooking the Aegean on its right, is in a private collection, England (18 3/8 × 13 1/4in., exh. 98th Annual Exhibition of Watercolours and Drawings, Agnew's, 1971, 59, repr.on catalogue cover). The rest of the Mount Athos drawings are now variously dispersed. T03168 was one of a group of nine Mount Athos subjects exhibited at Walker's in the summer of 1952; a further nine were exhibited at the same galleries in November–December 1952.

Lear had already (in 1851) published his illustrated Journal of a Landscape Painter in Greece and Albania. He sent a copy to his friend Alfred Tennyson, who responded with a poem entitled To E.L., on his Travels in Greece: its first two verses run:

Illyrian woodlands, echoing falls
Of water, sheets of summer glass,
The long divine Peneian pass,
The vast Akrokeraunian walls,
Tomobrit, 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...

(Tennyson, O.U.P. ed., 1975, p.116)

A companion Journal of a Landscape Painter in Southern Calabria was published in 1852. Davidson notes that Lear had intended to publish a similar volume of his tour of Mount Athos. That he did not pursue this project may have been due to his ambivalent feelings about the monasteries, thus expressed in a letter to Chichester Fortescue (quoted by Davidson, op.cit., pp.97–8): 'However wondrous and picturesque the exterior & interior of the monasteries, & however abundantly & exquisitely glorious & stupendous the scenery of the mountain, I would not go again to Ayios Oros for any money, so gloomy, so shockingly unnatural, so lying, so unatoneably odious seems to me all the atmosphere of such monkery...muttering, miserable, mutton-hating, man-avoiding, misogynic, morose & merriment-marring, monotoning, many-mule-making, mocking, mournful, minced-fish & marmalade-masticating Monx. Poor old pigs!’

Though he abandoned the idea of a separate volume of Mount Athos views, Lear subsequently adapted several of them for the three series of two hundred small grey wash drawings designed to illustrate Tennyson's poems. The series presented to Tennyson himself was sold in a manuscript sale at Sotheby's, 21–22 July 1980 (400, bt Agnew's). A ‘Simopetra’ subject from this series, now in a private collection, England, is inscribed ‘-Athos - all things fair’.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984

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