Of Pyramids and Picnics – Theodore, Mabel, the Owl and the Pussycat

Edward Lear, The Pyramids Road, Gizeh. Signed with monogram and dated EL.1873 lower left. Oil on canvas. Unframed: 53 by 104cm., 21 by 41 in (reproduced from the Edward Lear blog site – A Blog of Bosh).

Yesterday (30 March 2021) a distant view of the Giza Pyramids by Edward Lear sold at Sotheby’s (Lot 25) for £801,500, the second-highest price, we think, ever reached for a painting by this quite extraordinary man and artist.

Some Pyramid scalers in 1885 (the year of Mabel’s ascent), by J. Pascal Sébah. Obviously clambering all over them was the thing to do back then; it is not recommended today (although it seems Emma Thompson famously did in ‘Fortunes of War’).

It’s  a wonderful painting – your eye focusing on the dot of light at the end of the road, before glancing right, to the Pyramids themselves. Thoughts of the Bents in Cairo come to mind, notably in early 1885 when Mabel climbed Khufu, the Great, on her birthday (Wednesday 28 January): “… After dinner we went out in the bright moonlight and Theodore… went to visit the Sphinx but I preferred to go up the Pyramid, as I had not done it on Monday… I scrambled up all alone… I wondered if ‘Fair Rhodope who as the story tells’ sat on the top of the Pyramid,  delighting all beholders, was a poor creature whose clothes had got torn off in the ascent and who could not get down. I thought of the dangers and difficulties in ‘Murray’ and ‘Baedeker’ and determined to read about them and tremble tomorrow, and I banished scornfully a very passing thought of the silk elbows of the only smart frock I have with me, and joyfully and proudly reached the summit, a strangely dressed figure – Hat, silk and velvet brocade body, white lace fichu over it and a blue cloth petticoat with a wide scarlet band, which I quite vainly tried to conceal by tying a black lace scarf round it; the skirt had been discarded before starting… It was splendid being up there and I think it very very unlikely that any other person has been up by moonlight on his birthday before… 

(It was on this same trip, we can reveal, that Theodore and Mabel actually excavated at Saqqara (near Ti’s tomb) – not a widely reported fact and their activities went unpublished, but for Mabel’s diary entry of a picnic there on 30th January 1885:  “We improved our knowledge of the letters and were so delighted with the outer part that the old man rattled his keys much and often to try and attract us inside. When we did get inside we felt we should be there a long time so sent for our luncheon which we ate in the outer part, digging a hole for orange peels etc., that they might not offend the sight of future comers.“)

A view of Kasr-es-Saiyyad, Egypt, by Edward Lear (Christie’s sale 26 June 2007)

If you are curious, a search for the highest price paid for a Lear finds a sum of  £938,400 in June 2007, at Christie’s, for another Egyptian view: Kasr-es-Saiyyad (Kasr es Saiad, El Qasr el Saiyad).

Edward Lear (wikipedia).

Astronomical prices indeed for an artist who had to work tirelessly in his lifetime to make ends meet and who eventually settled modestly in San Remo, Italy, where, in a manner of speaking, he met Bent: “Tozer of Oxford sends me a charming book… by Theodore Bent… all about the Cyclades. (Dearly beloved child let me announce to you that this word is pronounced ‘Sick Ladies,’ – howsomdever certain Britishers call it ‘Sigh-claides.’)…” (Lear to Chichester Fortescue, Lord Carlingford [30 April 1885, San Remo]).

Mabel Bent’s diaries are available from Archaeopress, Oxford.