Edward Lear first visited Corfu briefly in 1848. Since 1814 the island had been a British Protectorate, with a large expatriate community. On this first visit he was overwhelmed by the beauty of the scenery. Writing to his sister Ann, he said: 'I wish I could give you any idea of the beauty of this island, it is really a Paradise [...] The extreme gardeny verdure, the fine olive trees, cypresses, almonds, & oranges, make the landscape so rich - & the Albanian mountains are wonderfully fine. All the villages seem clean & white, with here & there a palm tree overtopping them. The women wear duck, black or blue, with a red handkerchief about the head; the men - the lower order that is, mostly red caps - & duck full Turkish trousers'.
In 1855, looking for a place to escape the harshness of the English climate, he returned to Corfu and spent several winters living there. He loved the peacefulness of the untouched landscape, with its variety of gentle foreground and distant, sculptural mountain views. Describing the view from above the village of Ascension, the scene of this present painting, he wrote to his sister Ann: '[N]o place in all the world is so lovely I think. The whole island is in undulations from the plain where the city is, to the higher hills on the west side; & all the space is covered with one immense grove of olive trees - so that you see over a carpet of wood wherever you look; & the higher you go, the more you see, & always the Citadel & the Lake, & then the Straits, with the great Albanian mountains beyond.'
Lear's early working life had been as a natural history painter, and his expertise can be seen in the goats gathered round the peasants. In preparation for the painting, he also made numerous studies of olive trees. With its shimmering green and silver leaves and its gnarled and twisted trunks which read grey in the light and black against it, the olive was a tree that fascinated Lear. On one of his last visits to Corfu, in April 1866, he visited this spot once more, and wrote in his diary: 'Over head ever the loved alive: far below "bowery hollows" of green - ever & ever retreating: spotless blue above: glimpses of darker blue sea, & pearly radiant mountain through the transparent foliage. No wonder the Olive is undrawn - unknown: so inaccessible=poetical=difficult are its belongings,' adding, 'Can I give no idea of this Paradise island to others?'
The present picture was bought by Samuel Price Edwards, whom Lear had met in Corfu, the first of five pictures that he bought or commissioned from Lear. Writing to his friend Chichester Fortescue in September 1859, Lear said: 'The 2 for Mr Edwards - Corfu & Petra theatre, are far advanced, & look well'. Edwards also owned views of Petra, Turin, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.