That old softie Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote a poem to Edward Lear about reading his book, Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania, &c. “Tomohrit, Athos, all things fair," he wrote, “With such a pencil, such a pen/You shadow forth to distant men/I read and felt that I was there."

Lush geographic realism was not the strong point of Edward Lear’s immortal nonsense verse. But Lear began life not with the poetry which is now his most famous legacy, but as an artist and “ornithological draughtsman". He worked for wages as a young adult, and was once an illustrator for Britain’s Zoological Society.

In 1848, he undertook a journey few Englishmen had made before, to Albania, then the backyard of the Ottoman empire. His book, Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania, &c. (later reprinted as Edward Lear in Albania: Journals of a Landscape Painter in the Balkans), came out in 1851.

Picture this: Southern Albania. Godo Godaj/Wikimedia Commons

So Lear, on a painting and walking tour, set out from Saloníki through Macedonia, to Albania, and elsewhere. He wrote, as Tennyson gushes, with a poetic eye for natural beauty, and the good humour of a foreigner resigned to looking perpetually foolish among the natives, which excuses the more Victorian of his attitudes to rural poverty and Johnny Foreigners. Excerpts from the book:

Edward Lear gets a taste of local art criticism

Edward Lear. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Edward Lear offers fashion advice

Edward Lear longs for authenticity

We halted at mid-day in a cafe of Trikkala, the keeper of which was a man of Trieste, who talked of “quella Londra, e quel Parigi" with the air of a man of travel. But the sort of mongrel appearance of every person and thing in the town, are not pleasing to the eye of an artist who has been wandering much among real costume and eastern characteristic. Blue-tailed coats worn over white Albanian fustianelles, white fleecy capotes above trousers and boots, arc doubtless innocent absurdities, but they are ugly.

The plains grew wider and wider. We pass a few villages, each more widely apart from its neighbour than the preceding, and by degrees I feel that I am really in Thessaly, for width and breadth now constitute the soul and essence of all the landscape. To the north only the distant form of Olympus rears itself above a low range of hills; and to the south, the hills of Agrafa and Oeta are gradually becoming less distinct. Before me all is vast, outstretched plain, which never seems to end. Agriculture and liveliness are its predominant characteristics. It is full of incident; innumerable sheep, goats, horses, buffali, and cattle, corn or pasture-land, peasants’ huts, hundreds of perambulating storks, give a life and variety everywhere. And then so green, so intensely green, is this immense level! and the peasant women, in their gay, fringed and tasselled capotes—how far handsomer than any Greeks I have seen!

Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania, &c. can be read at http://archive.org/details/journalsoflands00learuoft

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