This monumental view of the pine forest of Bavella, in southern Corsica, is the largest of three known oil paintings that Lear executed of the forest following his expedition to the island during the winter of 1867-68. It illustrates Lear’s unparalleled skill at capturing a sense of grandeur and an epic depth of scale. The drama of the scene created by the imposing pine trees, the cavernous ravine in the centre, and the jagged mountains beyond, is heightened by a sense of tranquillity; only the sound of the falling water breaks the stillness. Using a combination of vivid, quickly-applied brushstrokes with carefully delineated details, Lear demonstrates his supremacy as a topographical draughtsman; despite the separate planes and topographies, he creates an image which is a unified and harmonious whole, both powerful and thrilling. Jeremy Maas wrote that ‘Lear’s genius expressed itself through an improbable fusion of seeming incompatibles into a glorious alchemy: he could paint sublimely romantic landscapes where Western man had scarcely set foot, write travel books, compose Nonsense verse and make Nonsense drawings – all in unstinting, unflagging profusion’ (V. Noakes, ed., Edward Lear 1812-1888, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London, 1985, p. 18).
Lear spent the winter of 1867-68 in Cannes, before leaving for Corsica at the beginning of April 1868. He arrived in Ajaccio on the south-west coast and travelled inland reaching the Forest of Bavella on 28 April. The landscape enthralled him: ‘The colour here is more beautiful than in most mountain passes I have seen, owing to the great variety of underwood foliage and the thick clothing of herbs; forms, too, of granite rocks seem to me more individually interesting than those of other formations; and the singular grace and beauty of the pine-trees has a peculiar charm – their tall stems apparently so slender, and so delicate the proportions of the tuft of foliage crowning them. The whole of this profound gorge, at the very edge of which the road runs, is full of mountain scenes of the utmost splendour, and would furnish pictures by the score to a painter who could remain for a lengthened sojourn’ (E. Lear, Journal of a Landscape Painter in Corsica, London, 1870, p. 91).
While exploring the island he filled pages of his sketchbooks with views. In the two months he was there, Lear made over three-hundred and fifty drawings, carefully annotated with his highly-recognisable colour suggestions, locations and timings. Bewitched by the view at Bavella Lear extended his time in the forest: ‘As I contemplate the glory of this astonishing amphitheatre, I decide to stay at least another day within its limits, and I confess that a journey to Corsica is worth any amount of expense and trouble, if but to look on this scene alone’ (ibid., p. 92).
This painting relates to a pen and ink sketch, presumably based upon an en plein air drawing from his Corsican sketchbooks, which formed part of Lear’s scheme of 1884-5 to illustrate the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (fig. 1; private collection). He chose this view as a possibility for the line from Tennyson’s Oenone, 'My tallest pines/My tall dark pines, that plumed the craggy ledge'. The sketch was further worked up into a larger drawing (1884-5, Houghton Library, Harvard University). He had first considered his Tennyson project in 1852, and he began a number of schemes throughout his career in varying sizes and mediums.
The three known pictures in oil of the Bavella forest that Lear executed after his Corsican tour are: this painting; The Forest of Bavella, Corsica, 1868, oil on canvas, 36 x 58 in. (private collection); and The Pine Forest of Bavella, oil on canvas, 6 3/8 x 10 3/8 in. (private collection). The second of these, painted in the same year as his Corsican tour, illustrates the forest through a more schematic composition, showing a group of travellers on a wide granite ledge in the foreground, gazing out over a dense swathe of dark pine trees towards the jagged mountains on the horizon beyond. The removal of the idealised figures in the present painting, combined with Lear’s highly-dramatic and more carefully-constructed composition, creates a greater sense of power and monumentality.
During his time in Corsica Lear also kept a detailed journal to be published with accompanying illustrations on his return. This followed a series of publications including details of his tours of Italy, Albania and the Ionian Islands. Published in December 1869, it features forty full-page illustrates, forty vignettes and a detailed map of the island, and is ‘the most efficiently written [of his travel books], and it is still an excellent guide to that island’ (P. Levi, Edward Lear: A Biography, London, 1995, p. 227).
In a letter to Lord Carlingford of 4 June 1884 he noted that ‘In the meantime I rise now at 4.30, and after 6, work at the never finished Athos, and the equally big Bavella’ (Lady Strachey,(ed., Later Letters of Edward Lear, London, 1911, p. 309). This statement supports the idea that the painting remained in the artist’s studio until after his death after which it is believed to have been acquired by the 15th Earl of Derby. The Earls of Derby of Knowsley Hall, just outside Liverpool, were Lear’s first major patrons. Lear met Lord Stanley, later 13th Earl of Derby, in 1831 when Lear was 20 years old when he invited the young artist to Knowsley Hall to record the magnificent collection of birds, mammals, reptiles and fish kept in his menagerie. In a later letter to Lord Avebury Lear wrote that ‘‘I saw by the papers that you have been staying at Knowsley lately – a place which was my home in past days for many years. I wonder if you saw a lot of my paintings and drawings. Lord Derby is always employing me in one way or another, as did his father, his grandfather, and his greatgrandfather. Fancy having worked for 4 Earls of Derby!’ (Letter, 3 November 1883 cited in ibid., p. 366).
We are grateful to Briony Llewellyn for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.