Edward Lear’s Brush With Kanchenjunga
A poem, The Owl and the Pussy Cat, enunciates in bold letters just one name: Edward Lear (1812-1888). He wrote this delightful poem for 3-year-old Janet, whose father John Symonds was a friend of Lear. What Lear did not realize was that this poem was destined to enthrall every child who read or heard its captivating lines. His engaging style of poetry transported children into a phantasmagorical world. Let us reflect on a few lines of the poem:
“The Owl and the Pussy-Cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar.”
Lord Northbrook was appointed Viceroy of India in 1871. Within a few weeks of taking charge as Viceroy, Lord Northbrook yearned to invite a friend to this fascinating country. Could he persuade his friend to sail across the high seas and visit India? His friend was Edward Lear.
A visit to India was instantly planned by Lear. Although there was a delay, Lear finally arrived Bombay on November 22, 1873. After visiting Benares he continued with his travels in the country and arrived Darjeeling on January 16, 1874. The next morning after an ‘early breakfast,’ he had a wonderful view of Kanchenjunga. But Lear’s enthusiasm waned:
“Kanchenjunga is not-so it seems to me-a sympathetic mountain; so god like and stupendous; a world of dark opal valleys full of misty hardly to be imagined forms….make up a rather distracting and repelling whole!” But the next day his enthusiasm returned when he viewed the Mount at sunrise.
“Kanchenjunga at sunrise is a glory not to be forgotten; Kanchenjunga is apt to become a wonderful hash of Turneresque colour and mist and space but with little claim to forming a picture of grand effect.” We were thus enlightened by the fact that Lear was also a remarkable painter. He painted three large oils on commission for Lord Aberdare who had given Lear the choice of an Indian subject. Lear wrote how at sunset they were at ‘the little Buddhist shrine,’ and beyond the shrine was a clear view of the ‘rosy and heighted’ Kanchenjunga. The Buddhist shrine he referred to was a monastery, seen either at Darjeeling’s Ghum or Sonada. His collection of the three oils and several water colours reflected this particular view. It was in 1999 at Christie’s, in London, when one of his paintings of Kanchenjunga sold for 123,213 dollars. Lear’s other paintings were also offered under the collection of ‘visions of India.’
India was the destination for many painters during the British Raj; people who visited to capture the wonders and natural features which are a part of the country’s rich legacy. The Daniell brothers who were mesmerized by the waterfall of Papanasam or the genius William Hodges who was engrossed by a stupa at Tanjore. All of them represent a legion of talented painters never to be forgotten. Within this legion Edward Lear is assured of a slot too. He sailed away from England to witness the beauty of this country; his voyage had brought him “To the land where the Bong tree grows,” a tree used to make pipes; a location also visited by the Owl and the Pussy-Cat in the poem!
By Deepak Rikhye