Lear arrived in Beirut from Jerusalem on 11th May 1858 and a few days later described in letter to his sister his approach to the cedars: 'So fine a view I suppose can hardly be imagined – more perhaps like one of Martin’s ideal pictures:- the whole upper part of the mountain is bare & snowy, & forms an amphitheatre of heights, round a multitude of ravines & vallies - full of foliage & villages most glorious to see: - and all that descends step by step to the sea beyond! – Far below your feet, quite alone on one side of this amphitheatre is a single dark spot – a cluster of trees: these are the famous Cedars of Lebanon.= Lebanon doubtless was once thickly covered with such, but now there are these only left. – I cannot tell you how delighted I was with those cedars! – those enormous old trees – a great dark grove – utterly silent, except the singing of birds in numbers. Here I staid all that day – the 20th & all the 21st working very hard… only that there was a leettle drawback to my pet cedars - & that was, that being 6000 feet above the sea, & surrounded by high now peaks the cold was o great I could not hold my pencil well…'
The cedars of Lebanon are generally considered to be amongst the subjects that inspired Lear to the greatest heights of poetry and ambition. Indeed, Lear considered that the nine-foot painting (now lost) of the cedars which was based on the present ‘on the spot’ study to have been his most important work. Lear worked on that painting in the winter of 1860-61 after his return to England and on its completion exhibited it at a price of 700 guineas.
Vivien Noakes has pointed out that in choosing the cedars, Lear could combine the biblical association of the subject with a subject drawn from nature. This was especially important as Lear considered that his especial strength lay in the depiction of natural history and often referred to his ‘poetical, & accurate topographical delineation’, emphasising that the lifelike quality of his work was important to him. In a humorous reference to a painting of the Cedars, Lear wrote that the picture was ‘so advanced that millions of sparrows are said to sit – (I never saw them myself,) on the window ledges, pining with hopeless despair at not being able to get inside.'
Lear made another large ‘on the spot’ drawing of the cedars dated 21st May 1858 (Victoria & Albert Museum). A similarly sized more fully worked-up repetition of the present watercolour which was made for a Miss Clive Perrystone of Ross-on-Wye was on the London art market in 1996.