Having been thinking about a trip to Egypt from early in 1848, Edward Lear arrived in Cairo in January 1849. There he met his old friend, the Reverend John Cross, who had offered to finance an expedition to Sinai and Palestine. They set out by camel on 13 January, and travelled along a route that can be charted through the many drawings that Lear made on the way, including those around Suez (15-17 January), of the wadis around Abu Zenima (20 January) and of Wadi Ferran (23 January).
Lear and Cross arrived at St Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, on 27 January 1849, and stayed there for three nights. However, during that time, Lear caught a cold, so they decided to turn back to Suez, and on their arrival, Lear was exhibiting signs of fever. They had ‘hoped to make Gaza, quarantine, and the Holy Land but, having stayed there for eight days ... the weather turned bad and Lear suddenly became miserable and gave up. From Alexandria, he took ship for Malta’ (Peter Levi, Edward Lear: A Life, London: Tauris Parke paperbacks, 2013 (revised ed), page 121). He would eventually visit Palestine in spring 1858.
The present drawing was made outside Suez on 5 February 1849, near the end of the trip. It is likely to be at least one of five studies of camels produced on that day. Two others are in the collection of the Houghton Library, Harvard University. The first, numbered ‘200’ and drawn at 10 am, focusses on a single camel which has been tethered by its front leg. The second, numbered ‘201’ and drawn at noon, comprises studies of six dead camels in various states of decomposition, one of which is being picked over by vultures. As
the present – far more charming – drawing was numbered ‘204’ and drawn between 3 and 4 pm, Lear must have made two further studies in the time in between noon and 3 pm, probably also of camels.
In a letter to his sister, Ann, written between 16 January and 3 February, Lear described his experience of the beasts of burden. He compared the enjoyable sensation of riding one to sitting ‘on a rocking chair’, but found them to be easily irritated, so that ‘If you try to make them go faster – they grown’, as he expressed in his punning spelling, and ‘if you stop them or try to go slower – they growl also’.