In the autumn of 1851, Edward Lear set off from a temporary residence
in Istanbul for a painting tour of Ottoman-held Albania and Macedonia,
armed with a sheaf of travel permits and letters of introduction to
Ottoman governors. The precautionary letters were essential, for despite
his dedicated pursuit of the picturesque Lear understood Albania to be
not just ‘a puzzle of the highest order’ but a place of ‘savage oddity’
renowned ‘for the ferocity of the aborigines’ (Lear 1988: 11, 51, 31). His
worst fears seem realised as soon as his boat lands at Thessaloniki.
‘Instantly the wildest confusion seized all’, he writes, as a crowd of
porters fight over his luggage with ‘the most furious hair-pulling, turbanclenching,
and robe-tearing’, only desisting when government troops give
them a ‘severe beating [with] sticks and whips’ (1988: 20). The images of
chaos and violence mount as Lear travels from the coast into Albanian
regions, where the imputedly wretched towns, infested lodgings, thievery
and hostility test the patience of this most good-natured of Englishmen.
Indeed, at one point, when his attempts to sketch the indigenes result in
his being pelted with ‘unceasing showers of stones, sticks, and mud’, he
goes so far as to consider them his ‘enemies’ (1988: 47). The landscape
may have delighted the artist, and driven him onward in his journey, but
he is filled with dread at the thought of actually inhabiting this ‘strange
and fearful’ region (1988: 145).