Items of Interest

Edward Lear’s Landscape Drawings: How many were there?

Lear drawing

By Stephen Duckworth

The project’s objective is to make an estimate of the number of original dated landscape drawings (as opposed to worked up watercolours) which Lear undertook in a career of over fifty years.

No reliable estimate has previously been made of Lear’s work output as a topographical artist. Hope Mayo of the Houghton Library, Harvard, acknowledges this in her paper The Edward Lear Collection at Harvard University, published in the Harvard Library Bulletin, Summer-Fall 2011, Volume 22: Number 2-3 (p.95).

The majority of Lear’s drawings appeared on the London market in 1929, over forty years after his death. Three significant sales at auction took place that year, as well as a private sale of many drawings by Mildred Lushington to the Tunbridge Wells dealers, Craddock and Barnard. Two of the auction sales as well as the private sale derived from the drawings and diaries left by Lear with his executor Franklin Lushington, Mildred’s father. The third auction sale, coincidentally in the same year, was of Lord Northbrook’s collection of some 3,000 of Lear’s drawings, primarily from his long visit to Indian and Ceylon from 1873 to 1875. These were contained in two cabinets, acquired by 1935 by W.B.O. Field, and are now at the Houghton Library (Mayo, p.87).

A detailed account of these transactions and their outcomes is given in Hope Mayo’s paper referred to above, and the background to one significant transaction on Greek drawings is described in my own paper, Edward Lear’s Cretan Drawings, in The Gennadius Library’s The New Griffon -12, published in Athens 2011 (p.103ff).

Public holdings

The Houghton Library has by far the largest collection of Lear drawings, some 3,600 in all, principally as the result of gifts of their collections by two Americans, W.B.O. Field and Philip Hofer, who realised the potential soon after the 1929 outpouring of works onto the market. Other significant public collections are those of the Yale Centre for British Art (approximately 490), the Liverpool Libraries (300) and the Gennadius Library in Athens (200). But no other public collections to my knowledge hold more than 100 of his drawings. Only some nine other institutions in Britain, the United States and Greece hold more than 25 each. This research has been able to tabulate hopefully all of the more significant such holdings and many of the much smaller ones, and incidentally to show which of Lear’s many journeys are represented at each.

The methodology has been to search collection websites of over 200 art galleries and museums in the UK plus Oxford and Cambridge University Colleges, 40 in the United States and 30 in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Greece, Turkey, France, Israel, and Malta. These searches have been followed up with email or personal enquiries where necessary.

Approximately 5,000 drawings are currently available for study, the large majority of them dated. Publication of the database has yet to be decided, but it is hoped it will be placed on the website of the Edward Lear Society and the Blog of Bosh – Edward Lear Homepage – as well as being made available more widely.

Private holdings

In 1967 Philip Hofer published Edward Lear as a Landscape Draughtsman (the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA). Unimaginable today, Chapter VIII of his book describes the then status of Lear collections, naming over 80 individuals or families in the United States, United Kingdom and Greece who held between one and fifty Lear drawings each ! Probably altogether these held at least four to five hundred drawings at the time, and he notes that a further 300 were destroyed in a fire in 1937.

No such information is readily available today, but through the Louis Blouin Art Sales website, I have established that almost 1,300 dated Lear landscape drawings were auctioned between 1958 and the end of 2014. (There will be a limited amount of duplication within that figure, because some works will have come to auction more than once over this period in excess of half a century and some will have been bought at auction by public collections and so already on record.) Most of the auction sales will have been of privately owned holdings transferring to other private hands. The number of sales of all Lear works on paper (including finished watercolours, undated landscapes, small figure drawings and nonsense verse drawings) in that period exceeds 2,000.

Numbered drawings

The aim of the research has been to put an estimated number on the total of Lear’s dated topographical landscape drawings from his first travels in England and Ireland from 1834, until his very last travels in the 1880s.

For most artists with works on paper running into many thousands, this might seem a very difficult if not impossible task. Lear however helps us greatly because for some 36 journeys he not only dated (and often timed) his drawings but gave a consecutive numeric sequence to them. He kept his drawings once penned out in cabinets in his London studio as source material for the oils and watercolours for which he hoped he would be commissioned for sale. From the mid 1840s onwards he usually, though not invariably, undertook this numbering, reflecting his methodical nature but probably also as a helpful reference source both for his paid for work and for his published books and those he hoped to write.

The numbered drawings did not cover all his output on such journeys. For example when he spent seven weeks in Crete in 1864, he completed 185 numbered and dated drawings but also ‘a vast number of small bits’ which were quick sketches of Cretans at work and rest, animals and bits of landscape often on very small scraps of paper. In my research on the Cretan drawings I have identified a further 52 ‘small bits’ – see

To compute the number of drawings Lear made on each ‘numbered’ journey, the attempt has been made to find the highest numeral on a drawing with a date close to the end of the journey. This will slightly underestimate the final number for the journey unless there is a known record of his very last drawing (as there is on the Cretan journey referred to above). Lear was also prone to occasionally adding an A and even a B and C to a digit to add in extra drawings, probably because he had already used the next consecutive numeral, forgetting he had one or two more drawings in time sequence to interpose. It will also omit the ‘small bits’, some of which do appear in the holdings of public institutions and which in the Cretan example above formed a significant but minor part of his output.

The database includes over 4,300 numbered Lear drawings with public institutions, for most of which it is now possible to reference numbers, dates and other details on museum websites. From this a fair assessment can be reached on the total of numbered and dated drawings he made on all such journeys. The total of all drawings using the method described on the 36 journeys where Lear appears to have consistently numbered drawings is a minimum of 7,081. An unknown number of these may no longer exist.

Estimating the remainder

In order to arrive at a broad estimate of the total number of dated drawings Lear made on his travels, there remains the question of 63 journeys or places where he stayed for a period where at least one unnumbered drawing has been identified. We may have the date of the drawings but no number sequence and so no guide to the total number. Sixteen of these journeys were made early in his career, up to 1843. But a further 36 were in the next 30 years before his final major travels to India and Ceylon in 1873-75. Late in his life he continued to draw on a further eleven journeys / places stayed.

I consider below two approaches which will provide a clue to this gap in our knowledge. Both of these are only guides and very broad estimates to the numbers involved. The fact that they provide different results demonstrates the caution which must be attached. One method draws on the known number of Lear drawings held in public collections. The other draws on the auction sale data over a more than 50 year period. The detailed calculations are in the Appendix.

First, research to date indicates over 4,300 dated drawings in public collections which are from ‘numbered’ journeys. We have established above the total drawings in numbered series as a minimum of 7,081. Therefore some 61% of all numbered drawings are currently held publicly. There seems no inherent reason why the unnumbered Lear drawings held by public collections should not represent a roughly similar percentage of the total sum of unnumbered drawings as they do of numbered drawings. Thus a simple calculation of the potential unnumbered drawings total can be made.

However this would ignore the fact that for a few journeys a particularly high percentage of the total output may have been acquired by one institution, for historic reasons. A good and major example is the very large number of drawings of India and Ceylon which were acquired possibly in Lear’s lifetime by Lord Northbrook, and which were subsequently sold and passed into the collection of the Houghton Library at Harvard. 1999 numbered drawings (in two sequences, one labelled ‘scraps’) were made. The Houghton has 2012 India and Ceylon drawings, some of which will be unnumbered. Other public collections hold a mere 9, and only 38 are recorded as sold at auction between 1958 and 2014. These must clearly be excluded from the calculations.

There are three other cases of numbered drawings (Northern Greece and Albania September 1848 and May 1849 and Corsica 1868, all again with Houghton) and one case of unnumbered drawings (Abruzzi July 1843, with Liverpool Libraries) where there is a similar dominance (see Appendix, note 3). I have excluded these from all the calculations below, but retained a handful of other cases where one collection may have more than 50% of known drawings, but there are also good proportions of other public holdings and auction sales.

Taking these exclusions into account the proportion of numbered drawings held publicly to all numbered drawings reduces to 39%. If that percentage is applied to the number of unnumbered dated drawings in public collections (610 found to date, but 505 after the exclusion of the Abruzzi 1843 journey), a total of unnumbered but dated drawings of approximately 1,295 results.

A second method is to use auction results to make a similar calculation. In some cases auction records have also helped to establish a high/late number for a particular journey. The Blouin Art Sales website has been used to examine just under 1,300 dated landscape drawings, as described under Private holdings above.

By tabulating these by journey, there is an interesting comparison of the distribution for individual journeys of holdings by institutions and the frequency of auction sales over half a century. Where the bulk of the drawings, for example of Lear’s India and Ceylon travels as mentioned above, remained together with the Earl of Northbrook and then ultimately with the Houghton Library, there are relatively very few auction sales because few drawings are in private hands. But there are examples where the reverse appears to be true and most works are probably with collectors.

By separately totalling the auction sales of dated drawings for the numbered journeys and those for journeys/places which Lear did not number, it becomes possible to make another broad estimate of the drawings made on these unnumbered journeys. The same exclusions are made for where there is a dominant public collection as in the first method above. Since 1958, approximately 18.5% of the numbered journey drawings were sold at auction (the same drawing might appear over this long period more than once at auction but this would probably account for only a small percentage of these sales).

405 of the adjusted auction sales however related to unnumbered journeys, and if these, as for the numbered journey sales, represented 18.5% of the total, the unnumbered drawings would amount to approximately 2,189.

The total of Lear’s dated landscape drawings output therefore seems likely to have been a minimum of 7,081 numbered drawings plus perhaps between 1,295 and 2,189 unnumbered drawings. It may be reasonable to suggest that he made between 8,500 and 9,000 dated drawings of landscapes over his fifty years of constant travels.

I am most grateful for the comments and advice I received from Dr Rowena Fowler and Bernard Silverman in preparing this paper.

To download the full pdf click here

© Stephen Duckworth
August 2017