“I think that Lear would be as shocked as anyone to find himself on the walls at IKON,” suggests curator Matthew Bevis during this exhibition’s opening. Best known for his nonsense verse, Edward Lear worked as an artist his entire adult life, producing a vast quantity of sketches – “around 9,000 compositions,” notes the catalogue, “roughly one every couple of days over a fifty-year period” – many produced during his restless travels across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Following the success of their recent Carlo Crivelli show, IKON now presents Moment to Moment, the first exhibition dedicated solely to Lear’s landscape drawings, a stunning introduction to an essential body of work.
Immediately striking is the movement on display, a sense of Lear in transit, even on the run. The sketches are alive with quickness and rapidity, like a diary in motion, on the verge of animation, filled with moments of emergence and revelation: sudden shadows, pinking clouds, a sail catching the wind, reeds bending in a morning breeze, the moon’s reflection on the water turning up unexpectedly. Of course, this ‘just-now’ quality occurs, in part, as the result of Lear’s incessant travel, each picture meticulously stamped with the location, date, and (very often) time of day, allowing us to oversee the work as it unfolds. One of the joys of this exhibition is to witness pictures made just hours, sometimes even minutes apart from one another. Five sketches of Egypt’s temple of Amada take place within a forty-minute window, allowing us to watch the light, colour, and shadow shift from 6:50 to 7:30 on a February morning.
In this way, Lear shares something with another prolific English traveller, D.H. Lawrence, whose own “restless wanderings round the earth,” writes Aldous Huxley, constituted both “a flight and a search.” The extent of Lear’s own “restless wanderings” is hinted at throughout this exhibition, with pictures drawn from Italy to India spanning thirty years. Uniting them all, over decades and continents, is the consistent presence of Lear’s horizons, a near-constant reminder of the possibility of somewhere else, one eye always looking for the next place to move on to.
As such, Lear’s drawings have the quality of departure, bearing in-built nostalgia for the thing that he’s seeing. Most of the sketches are scratched and marked with marginalia, reminders of specific colours and tones to tint the pictures later on, but also scraps and notes-to-self, as if Lear were trying to keep a record of himself alongside – or perhaps even as part of – his surroundings. After all, “A moment is everything / one person [...] / takes in simultaneously,” writes the American poet Rae Armantrout, though “only a small part / (or none) of this / will be carried forward / to the next instant.”
As a draughtsman, Lear is better known for his detailed natural history drawings, particularly his famous birds. The same precision and accuracy are certainly on display here – see the confidence of Lear’s camels in two drawings from a drifting boat (Lear on the move, quite literally) – but these pictures are also suggestive of fluid and hazy, dreamlike fantasy, charged with the same distinctive emptiness and pregnant symbolism of later landscapes by Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious. This may have something to do with Lear’s compositional technique, closely observing a scene for several minutes with “a monocular glass he always carried” before reproducing it on paper without looking back, generating “something like an on-the-spot memory of the present,” in the words of Matthew Bevis. Moreover, Lear’s sketches are often accompanied by cartoonish creatures and enigmatic stick figures – backs turned, out-of-earshot – bringing his scenes to life while drawing our attention to their eerie, atmospheric stillness. “Lear is, as it were, painting timelessness,” suggests Adam Phillips in the exhibition catalogue, “or painting real places as though they are not entirely real.”
Timelessness, yes, but timelessness achieved through Lear’s attention to the fleeting, fading, finite moment. “How marvellous is the living relationship between man and his object,” wrote D.H. Lawrence in 1925, “be it man or woman, bird, beast, flower or rock or rain; the exquisite frail moment of pure conjunction, which, in the fourth dimension, is timeless.” Above all, Lear’s drawings at IKON reveal his own “living relationship” with the landscape, “exquisite frail moment[s]” somehow preserved and still ongoing, available for us to witness once again for the first time.