Saturday October 5 2019
This month’s books show us two artists at work in the field of book illustration. Edward Lear is now probably best known to us as master of the Limerick and the inventor or a great deal of nonsense rhyme (The Owl and the Pussycat, The Jumblies, The Pobble who has no Toes). He was a musician and composer, setting a number of nineteenth-century verses (especially those of Tennyson who he particularly admired) to piano accompaniment. Lear was also a talented artist and his skill is represented by the painting, The Pines at Ravenna, which hangs above the piano in The Red House drawing room. Britten and Pears also collected several books by and about Lear, including his Journal of a Landscape Painter in Corsica, a fully illustrated account of the artist’s journey in the Mediterranean in the late 1860s.
Lear made a number of foreign expeditions at the outset of his career, with the express purpose of capturing landscape in its variety. He travelled to Italy in the mid-1840s and to Egypt, Greece and Ceylon at the end of the decade. This volume resulted from his visit to Corsica in 1868 and includes sketches, rather than the wash illustrations he often produced during his earlier journeys. Lear’s romantic depictions of the Corsican countryside would not look out of place in any Gothic novel and are full of atmosphere and drama. For this publication the sketches were drawn onto wood and then cut by professional engravers.
This volume is part of the New Excursions into English Poetry series (edited by W.J. Turner and Sheila Shannon). Each anthology concentrates on what might be called neo-Romantic themes. Sea Poems, Sleep and Death, Poems of Death, The Poet’s Eye were some of the other published titles, each one fusing poetry of all periods with the work of a contemporary artist. Piper’s keen eye represents nature brilliantly throughout the book in a number of moods. Here he depicts the Oxfordshire countryside – where he, his wife Myfanwy and their children made their home. This twilight view of Stonesfield captures part of the contemplative mood, ‘the retirèd ground,’ of Matthew Arnold’s melancholic Scholar Gypsy.
John Piper’s professional association with Britten began with his designs for the sets and costumes for the opera The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne in 1946 and continued until the composer’s final opera, Death in Venice of 1973. Piper’s work can also be seen in The Red House – and in books here in the Library. His fascination with the countryside is manifest in the lithographs produced for a volume of verse about English, Scottish and Welsh landscape. The book is part of a series of poetry anthologies published in the early 1940s. Each one focussed on a certain theme and featured lithographs by modern artists. Other illustrators in the series included Michael Ayrton, Robert Colquhoun, Mona Moore, William Scott and John Craxton.