One of my intended destinations when visiting Corfu last month was Lawrence Durrell’s White House at Kalami. I never got there in the end, although I did catch a brief glimpse of it from a bus. The main reason I missed visiting it is because Corfu is full of wonderful places that invite you to linger, and the summer heat precludes you from doing anything outdoors in the late morning or afternoon when it’s better to visit indoor museums. One of these is the The Corfu Museum of Asian Art in Corfu Town, housed in a large British Colonial building called the palace of St. Michael and St. George. And here I discovered a treat I was not expecting: an exhibition of Edward Lear’s Ionian watercolours.
This year is the bicentenary of Lear’s birth and this is Corfu’s celebration of it. Lear is mostly known for his limericks and nonsense rhymes but his main vocation was that of a landscape painter. He loved the Greek islands and painted many Corfiot scenes and landscapes.
I remember a teacher in my primary school reading us The Owl And The Pussycat and commenting on Lear’s impulse to travel. ‘What was he running away from, I wonder?’ he mused. ‘Who’d choose to be always on the move in strange, foreign places rather than return home to his own bed and a nice meal with his family every night?’
It was question I that fascinated me, because I’ve wanted to travel ever since I can remember. I used to collect postcards was always cutting pictures out of travel brochures to paste in my scrapbook, usually surrounded by doodles of suitcases and airline tickets.
Edward Lear was born in Holloway to Jeremiah and Ann Lear in 1812. He was the twentieth of twenty one children. Exhausted with child-bearing and looking after the ones that survived the mortality rate, Lear’s mother passed him on to his eldest sister, also called Ann. The two of them moved into separate accommodation and Ann Junior became the young artist’s surrogate mother. He never got over his parents’ rejection and developed severe body dismporphia that was to cripple him emotionally for the rest of his life. He never formed a loving bond with anyone, although he shared a home with his cook for a while, and Ann remained the main influence on him till her death.
To complicate matters Lear was a sickly child. He suffered from asthma, bronchitis, depression and epilepsy, which in Victorian times was considered by many to be a sure sign of demonic possession. No wonder the young Lear wanted to travel. He needed to get away from the parents who had rejected him, and from a society that viewed him as an odd outsider.
Success with his art came early and this gave him the opportunity to set up shop as a topographical painter. Travelling not only removed him from the frowns of a disapproving society but the warm climates he chose also reduced the number of epileptic fits he suffered.He visited, lived and painted in many countries, including Greece, Italy, Albania, India, Sri Lanka and Egypt, finally settling in the Italian town of San Remo. He learnt to send up his negative body image in his limericks, once referring to his large nose as a place where all the birds of the world had space to alight. He often introduced himself with ridiculours name, such as Mr Abebika kratoponoko Prizzikalo Kattefello Ablegorabalus Ableborinto phashyph” or “Chakonoton the Cozovex Dossi Fossi Sini Tomentilla Coronilla Polentilla Battledore & Shuttlecock Derry down Derry Dumps“.
Writing in his diary, he stated, ‘I hate life, unless I work ALWAYS.’ That line makes me wonder how many of us authors and illustrators feel like Lear to some extent? Do we write to create alternative realities where our existence is more bearable, or exciting or even more controllable? Do we need to suffer, to be outcasts of some sort, in order to create something beautiful, something that touches people? I notice that Lawrence Durrell only stayed in the White House in Kalami for a few years. Then he was off to pastures new, looking for new experiences, new inspirations. I ask myself: do we need to keep searching for something elusive to be writers or artists? Are our stories or pictures or sculptures the lucky by-products of an eternal search for some kind of meaning in our lives? I wonder what sir from Year 4’s reply would be if he were still alive?