Lear first visited Corfu briefly in the summer of 1848. At this time it was a British protectorate, ceded to the British in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon. He was overwhelmed by its beauty. 'I wish I could give you any idea of the beauty of this island,' he wrote, 'it really is a Paradise. The extreme gardeny verdure - the fine olives, cypresses, almonds, & oranges, make the landscape so rich - & the Albanian mountains are wonderfully fine.'
He returned, this time to set up a winter home, in November 1855. Dominating the town was the Citadel- 'than which a more picturesque object can hardly exist' - a promontory which Lear described as 'double-crowned', surmounted by twin forts enclosed by bastions. This stronghold, which had been built by the Venetians who had controlled the island between the thirteenth and late eighteenth centuries, reflected the island's strategic position, separated from the coast of Albania by narrow straights and guarding the main trade routes between Europe and the Levant.
The island itself was as beautiful as he had remembered. Outside the town, the countryside abounded in perfect subject-matter for the landscape he most enjoyed painting - verdant foregrounds filled with interest, moving back in succeeding, often overlapping, layers to wide, distant mountains. 'No place in all the world is as 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.' With his supreme talent as a linear landscape draughtsman, he took particular pleasure in recreating their sculptural quality.
Much of his Corfu work reflected his lifelong fascination with trees. The olive in particular intrigued him, with its shimmering green and silver leaves and its knarled and twisted trunks which read grey in the light and black against it. 'Overhead ever the loved olive,' he wrote: 'far below the "bowery hollows" of green - ever & ever retreating: spotless blue above: glimpses of darker blue sea, & pearly radiant mountain through transparent foliage.'
It was not only the flora that he loved to paint. His early work as a natural history illustrator is reflected in the ease with which he handled the birds and animals that he introduced into his paintings - here, the goats watched over by their Corfiote shepherds in their 'red caps - & duck full Turkish trousers'.
He made a number of paintings of the view from the Hill of Gastouri, which he thought one of the loveliest in the island. 'The beautiful slopes of Olive-wood seem to end in the church-crowned Promontory of Ascension; but that is not the case, as the Lake Calichiópulo is between the end of the "One-Gun Battery" road and the Olive Slopes. Its entrance, however, is hidden, as is one of the little Island Monasteries, - only the "Ship of Ulysses" being visible. The Citadel, the town of Corfú, Vido, and (separated by the Channel) the end of Mount San Savador, the Sante Quaranta hills, and those of Butrinto, are all beyond.'
He began on the present work in November 1856, during his second winter in Corfu. As he worked on it, he told his sister Ann that the Albanian mountains were 'like long ranges of opal, with pearls or cream on their summits', adding, 'this is a long wonderous beauty'. Although he worked in his studio from the drawings done on the spot, he returned often to this scene, walking the six miles from his home overlooking the harbour along 'the beautiful aqueduct path'. The painting, which is still in its original frame, was completed early in 1858.
The island was returned to Greek rule in 1864, when the Greek monarchy was restored. The throne was offered to a number of European princes and statesmen before being accepted by the young Prince William of Denmark. Lear himself appears to have had some ambitions. 'You may not have heard, he wrote to a friend, '(it is not generally known,) that I refused the throne of Greece - King Lear the first - on account of the conduct of Goneril & Regan my daughters, wh. has disturbed me too much to allow of my attention to governing.'