skip to content

There is a long tradition of British travel to the antique lands of the Eastern Mediterranean. From medieval crusaders and pilgrims to the gentlemen — and occasionally ladies — of the Grand Tour, British travellers went East in search of power, wealth, and spiritual enlightenment. But even in an era of rain, steam and speed, Victorian Britons imagined their own cultural moment through an active engagement with the distant past. For the poet and critic Matthew Arnold, a modern progressive society had to develop in dialogue with the ancient world. Western Europe was delicately balanced between ‘two points of influence’: the Bible and Greco-Roman antiquity (what Arnold labelled Hebraism and Hellenism). Modern Britons derived their spirit of obedience and discipline from the Hebrews, but their intellectual, critical and creative energies, the power ‘to see things as they really are’, came from the Greeks. For the Victorians, ‘the East’ was a point of origin, a contested site of spiritual and cultural beginnings. To travel to Greece or the Holy Land was thus to travel back in time.

This notion of a ‘timeless’ East was, however, built upon chauvinistic assumptions about the modernity of Britain and the ‘backward’ nature of life in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean. Travel to classic ground had begun as an elite phenomenon, a gentlemanly rite of passage. But by the 1840s modern travel agents like Thomas Cook & Son were offering pre-paid package excursions, and had thereby opened up Greece and Palestine to middle-class and women travellers. For Cook himself, an evangelical Christian and temperance activist, tourism was a patriotic and religious duty: ‘To remain stationary in these times of change’, wrote Cook in 1854, ‘when all the world is on the move, would be a crime’.


The Temple of Apollo at Bassae
(1854/5). Edward Lear.
Oil on canvas (146.4 x 229.5, cm). Object no. 460

On one level, this Greek landscape by Edward Lear represents a conventional picturesque Mediterranean scene: a high-end picture postcard of an established ‘sight’ on the itinerary of the cultured traveller.  But this pagan temple in Arcadia — dedicated to Apollo, the god of poetry and the arts — also had symbolic significance for Lear as a struggling author and artist. Unlike many of the more established British landscape artists, who had trained at elite academies, Lear was born into a large lower-middle class family in Holloway, North London (he was the twentieth of twenty-one children). Educated at home by his older sister Ann, he was later apprenticed as a draughtsman to an ornithologist. In the wake of the great scientific voyages of discovery, there was a demand for high quality natural history illustration. But Lear’s early works were the result of shorter journeys to the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park. He published an illustrated volume on parrots in 1832, although he had never seen them in the wild. When Lear did make journeys south, it was as a convalescent and a jobbing artist. This Arcadian landscape is the product of a journey through Greece and Albania with his friend Franklin Lushington, in 1849. Lear was in search of picturesque views which could be recorded, reinterpreted and reproduced for profit.

To potential buyers, this spectacular canvas was also a reminder of the status of Britain as a modern imperial power. Many sculptures from the Temple of Apollo at Bassae sat next to the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum. Plaster casts of the temple frieze adorned the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Travellers Club in fashionable St. James. The latter institution, founded by Lord Castlereagh 1819, restricted its membership to men who had ‘travelled out of the British islands to a distance of at least five hundred miles from London in a direct line’. Perhaps Lear saw this canvas as his ticket to an elite world of gentleman artists, landowners and politicians.

The intense detail of the flora and fauna remind us of Lear’s background as a zoological draughtsman. His diary records the natural beauty of the region; ‘all the exquisite plains of the coast are seen through magnificent forests of ilex and oak’. Yet his work could not be described as neutral scientific observation. In the painting, the temple and landscape are bathed in Arcadian sunlight, but we know from Lear’s diary that it was snowing on the day he sketched the temple.

In March 1849, Lear had found that ‘the Temple of Bassae, and its position, much as I had expected were far beyond expectations of beauty and Arcadian landscape’:

The columns are of a light grey-white, and stand as if placed for a picture in front of the finest scenery it is possible to fancy. . . the sea and gulfs beyond — and infinitely well-drawn lines of interwoven hills, — the rich oakwoods on all sides — the intense depth  and variety of vallies around — and the magnificent horizon of Spartan mountains!!!!! I drew once, twice, three times. . .  At 12.30pm it began to snow hard . . . Nevertheless I made some more efforts to carry away memories of this wonderful beautiful place. . . 

The work of a great humorist, Lear’s diaries offer a self-conscious record of his attempts to hunt down and collect picturesque views. Even this Arcadian landscape includes at least one visual in-joke, perhaps an allusion to the artist’s humble origins as a zoological draughtsman. In 1836, Lear had provided the illustrations to a monograph on turtles and tortoises by the naturalist Thomas Bell. And in the right foreground of the canvas, Lear has indeed included a small but beautifully detailed tortoise, clambering over the rocks in the direction of the temple. Might this creature be standing in for the artist himself, making his slow solitary journey towards the sacred precincts of Victorian high society? 

Near the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem
(c. 1905/6). John Singer Sargent.
Oil on Canvas. 66.5 cm x 97.7 cm. Object no. 1506

John Singer Sargent represents a quite different breed of cosmopolitan artist-traveller.  Born in Florence to American parents, Sargent had trained in Paris and exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. He travelled very widely, and from the 1870s was exhibiting landscape scenes inspired by trips to Eastern Europe and North Africa. His oil landscape Near the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem is from several decades later.  Like Lear’s earlier scene, the title subtly alludes to a location charged with religious significance. But on this occasion the context is biblical rather than classical. The Mount of Olives was the site from which Jesus predicted his second coming and wept over the anticipated destruction of the Temple — a prophecy of imperial ruination. It is also the hallowed spot from which the Risen Christ was said to have ascended to heaven as the apostles looked on — a subject of many grand historic canvases, from Giotto and Perugino to Rembrandt and Benjamin West.

Sargent’s treatment of this hallowed ground is subtle but significant. The bulk of Sargent’s topographical landscapes are watercolours, but here he has chosen to work on much larger scale and in oils. Is Sargent quietly writing himself into a grand tradition, by offering a landscape that claims a place alongside the religious studies of the Old Masters? Or perhaps the artist is an aesthetic pilgrim, venerating a site that has become sacred not only through biblical associations, but also through its continual re-imagining by great artists. And yet, it is the title alone that explicitly sets this work apart from the many other Middle-Eastern landscapes that Sargent painted. 

The scene also provides a good example of the persistent trope of the ‘timeless’ East in Victorian and Edwardian art. A parched rocky landscape, decorated with sparse vegetation and low, domed stone buildings on the horizon: there is little here to identify this painting as set in the early twentieth century. But to frame this scene effectively, Sargent would have had to direct his gaze with selective precision. The area was home to Jerusalem’s largest cemetery, and from almost any angle Sargent would have been surrounded by flat stone grave markers, many of them carrying a relatively recent date. Even more disconcerting was a skyline dominated not only by mosques, but also by the spires of new Christian churches. Most late nineteenth-century photographic views from the Mount are dominated by the opulent gilded onion domes of the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene, built by Tsar Alexander III in 1886. Is this why Sargent’s title rather vaguely describes a scene ‘near’ the Mount of Olives? While pious pilgrims, tourists, and emperors rebuilt the sacred landscape according to their own devotional needs, the artist in search of the timeless city of antiquity was forced to avert his eyes. 



(1869/70). Edward Henry Palmer. Object no. MS 1-1939


The journeys of the scholar, academic and explorer Edward Henry Palmer were more dramatic than those made by Lear and Sargent. A Professor of Arabic at St. John’s College, Cambridge, Palmer produced Arabic grammars, revised an edition of the New Testament in Persian, and translated the Koran into English. And yet his impulse to travel was not so different from the antiquarian instincts of middle-class Victorians who crowded their mantelpieces with images of the biblical past. Palmer’s interest in the Arabic language and the Bedouin nomads of Sinai and Palestine stemmed from his desire to revisit the world of Moses and Jesus.

Palmer saw his investigations into the grammar and lexicon of Arabic dialects as a form of archaeological excavation. The histories found ‘fossilised’ in Arab place-names, he argued, could furnish ‘undying testimony to the truth of Scripture.’ The notebook exhibited here dates from Palmer’s expedition across Sinai with the London-based Palestinian Exploration Fund in 1869. His notes and sketches would eventually lead to a popular travelogue, The Desert of the Exodus (1871). As this title suggests, Palmer’s journey was a combination of scientific expedition, pilgrimage and historical re-enactment. For centuries, scholars had disputed the route taken by Moses and the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan. Palmer’s mission was to settle this dispute once and for all, while also bulwarking the reliability of scriptural history with some solid evidence from the field. 

In The Desert of the Exodus, Palmer begins by dismissing flighty theories cooked up ‘by travellers who have merely passed through the country, or visited it for a short time’. Previous accounts of Sinai, he suggests, are filled with ‘erroneous impressions which novel scenes make upon a stranger, and which only long residence can rectify’. The nineteenth century was a period when science and religion came increasingly into conflict, but Palmer demonstrates how scientific methods could also be deployed in defence of scripture. While couched in the language of scholarly disinterest, Palmer’s goal was to marshal ‘sufficient data’ to enable ‘us to judge of the general fitness of the land for the events recorded in the Sacred Narrative of the Exodus’. We can see the wide-ranging nature of Palmer’s ‘evidence’ in these pages from his notebook. Like Sargent, Palmer was interested in the landscape of the Bible, but his landscape is far from depopulated. In the notebook, scribbled notes of Arabic place names share the page with drawings of architectural ruins — the fragments of empires past — and hasty sketches of Arab nomads.

Despite his claims to scientific objectivity, Palmer’s expeditions were also closely bound up with the expansion of empire. His understanding of the travails of the ancient Hebrews was informed by the language of the modern military surveyor: his goal was to demonstrate ‘the general capabilities of the country for the passage and sustenance of the Israelitish hosts’. He eventually returned to Egypt as a spy during the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882. Owing to his familiarity with Arab language and customs, Palmer had been tasked with winning the Bedouin over to the British side. In August 1882, however, he was ambushed and murdered in Sinai. A subsequent mission was launched in search of his body, and his fragmentary remains were eventually interred in that pantheon of imperial heroes, St Paul’s Cathedral, eight months later. Not all journeys to Bible lands were so dramatic or violent, but the travels of Edward Palmer point to some of the tensions and dangers implicit in the Victorians’ anachronistic desire to interpret foreign spaces through the familiar lens of sacred scripture.