Throughout his life Lear was the most unlikely inveterate traveler. Besieged by ill health, poor eyesight and without sufficient funds, he nevertheless traveled through most of Europe -- including remote and unpopulated areas of Eastern Europe -- as well as areas of the Middle East and North Africa. His most far-flung trip would be his last when in 1873 he set out for India under the patronage of Lord Northbrook, who had just been appointed Viceroy of India the year before. Lear had made an unsuccessful attempt to reach the Subcontinent in 1872 but was forced to turn back at the Suez Canal. He spent about fifteen months in India and Ceylon and was dazzled by the cacophony of colors and costumes, architecture and landscape. He made at least 1,500 drawings while in India, the majority of which are in the Houghton Library at Harvard University.
In February 1874 Lear was in Gwalior, a city in present-day Madhya Pradesh south of Agra, site of the Taj Mahal. He was ill when he arrived, but was still able to sketch and write about his journey. Lear wrote of Gwalior in his diary'...[I] moved "athwart" the plain to a rising ground covered with Musselman tombs, -- some very pretty, -- others mere heaps of stone, -- all more or less in decay. Here I got a very good distant view of Gwalior Fortress' (I.J., Ms., 22.ii.74). Indeed it is this view we see in the present lot: the Chambal river is in the foreground with elephants wading in the water. In the distance, a plateau rises from the vast landscape, on top of which is the Gwalior Fort, first built in the 8th century, overlooking the city, its minarets puncturing the hazy skyline.
Lear's preliminary sketch of Gwalior first done in situ and then 'penned out' (i.e., his pencil lines gone over with pen and ink and then filled in with watercolor) is dated 22 February 1874, 2:30pm (The Houghton Library, Department of Printing and Graphics, Harvard University; see V. Noakes, Edward Lear, 1812-1888, New York, 1986, p. 64, 34f). It was the basis for this oil, believed to have been executed in 1880 (dated on the frame) after the artist had returned to Italy, his adopted home. Both the stretcher and the frame (fig. 1) -- apparently original to the painting -- are inscribed 'The Duke of Westminster/Grosvenor House', indicating the painting's first owner. A larger version (82.5 x 165.8 cm.) of this composition, also in oil and dated 1884, is in the collection of the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery (FA000039).