My favourite painting: Martyn Rix

'I remembered this painting when planning to go to the Peloponnese in March. We went to see the temple and hoped to find Lear’s view'

The Temple of Apollo at Bassae, 1854– 55, by Edward Lear (1812–88), 4¾ft by 7½ft, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Martin Rix says:
Edward Lear’s watercolours of the East are very atmospheric, especially when they combine a group of nomads or camels with a view of distant mountains. He painted many famous sites when they were wild and abandoned and I remembered this painting when planning to go to the Peloponnese in March. We went to see the temple and hoped to find Lear’s view. The ancient oak forests are still there as you approach the site, their branches covered with ferns, and, here, the tree is faithfully painted. It is high and cold for Greece and this comes over in the painting, which must have been sketched in late autumn after the grass had begun to grow. Alas, the temple is still undergoing restoration and is covered with a huge plastic tent that has been there for almost 30 years.

Martyn Rix is a botanist, plant collector, gardener and editor of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. His new book, Flora Japonica, will be published in September to coincide with an exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery in Kew.

John McEwen comments on The Temple of Apollo at Bassae:
That Lear was first and foremost a landscape painter is honoured by the inscription on his headstone in the Foce cemetery, San Remo, in Italy: lines taken from his friend Tennyson’s poem, To E.L., on His Travels in Greece:

All things fair
With such a pencil, such a pen,
You shadow forth to distant men,
I read and felt that I was there.

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Lear was his parents’ 21st child. his father was Master of the Fruiterers Company, but made bad investments. As today, Londoners found value for money by moving out. Lear was born in the then country village of Holloway.

When his father was imprisoned for debt, he was assigned, at the age of four, to his spinster sister Ann, 21 years his senior, who mothered him until her death when Lear was almost 50. She gave him a feminine schooling: drawing, recitation, music. All his life, he was cursed with short sight and twice-weekly epileptic fits.

From 15, he was a professional botanical and zoological artist. It was when documenting Lord Derby’s menagerie at Knowsley that he wrote A Book of Nonsense for the Earl’s children. A visit to the Lake District inspired him to concentrate on landscape painting— a solitary, outdoor occupation that hid his epilepsy and suited his shy, romantic nature. He travelled widely, from Europe to Sri Lanka, finally settling in San Remo.

Lear first visited Bassae, most remote of ancient Greek ruins, in March 1849: ‘I never saw so beautiful a landscape as it forms part of.’ His on-the-spot watercolour-tinted drawings were sometimes reworked later in the studio as oil paintings, as was this view.