All at sea in a sieve

Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Non­sense by Jenny Uglow Faber, 598pp Robert Mc­Crum is moved by an ac­count of a gay writer’s tor­ment con­cealed by sur­real word­play

The Guardian Weekly - - Books -

If ever there was an English na­tional lit­er­ary trea­sure, he must be Ed­ward Lear. In polls The Owl and the Pussy­cat is of­ten voted the na­tion’s favourite poem. Any­one who has ever doo­dled a lim­er­ick, of any tone or topic, pays homage to his ge­nius. As well as time­less non­sense such as The Jum­blies, there’s also his art – bril­liantly stud­ied paint­ings of ex­otic crea­tures; lu­mi­nous desertscapes; an­tic sketches of men with birds in their beards – work that puts him in a class of his own as an im­por­tant Vic­to­rian artist.

Ed­ward Lear is one of those English one-offs who are trea­sured be­cause they seem to sug­gest that there are no more im­por­tant things to do than paint or write, and who em­body a be­nign, pro­vi­sional and above all am­a­teur spirit. Lear him­self, slyly com­plicit, sum­marised his place in the English cul­tural land­scape with a teas­ing, en­crypted self-de­scrip­tion:

How pleas­ant to know Mr Lear! Who has writ­ten such vol­umes of stuff ! Some think him ill-tem­pered and queer, But a few think him pleas­ant enough.

He was born in Lon­don in 1812, the same year as Charles Dick­ens, one of at least 17, or was it 19 (his mother lost count; there were in­fant deaths)? Young Ed­ward was both swept up in, and set apart from, this brood. With good rea­son: he al­ways felt dif­fer­ent. By the age of five, he was not only a boy among many sis­ters, but also di­ag­nosed as epilep­tic, a life­long ter­ror he shared with Lewis Car­roll. Epilepsy would be one of the se­crets that made him soli­tary, while his atro­cious eyesight “formed ev­ery­thing into a hor­ror”. Lear’s non­con­formist par­ents hardly com­pen­sated for th­ese child­hood trau­mas: both were largely ab­sent. His City bro­ker fa­ther was re­mote; his “shad­owy” mother re­jected him.

Jenny Uglow de­clares at the out­set that she wants to “fol­low his life straight­for­wardly”. In this, she’s echo­ing the dis­creet and mag­is­te­rial ex­am­ple of Vivien Noakes, who pi­o­neered this elu­sive sub­ject in 1968 in Ed­ward Lear: The Life of a Wan­derer. But Uglow goes much fur­ther than Noakes. This, quite rightly, is the half-life of a gay man in a so­ci­ety that had nei­ther lan­guage nor tol­er­ance for ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. By chap­ter two, on top of his other trou­bles, young Ed­ward is grap­pling with some mys­te­ri­ous abuse, “the great­est evil done to me in my life”. What, ex­actly, this was re­mains un­clear, though Lear recorded the date of the “great­est evil” ev­ery year in his di­ary. Uglow, whose fo­cus on Lear and his confused sex­u­al­ity is un­flinch­ing, is too good a bi­og­ra­pher to in­dulge in reck­less spec­u­la­tion here. Clearly, for “pleas­ant” Mr Lear, noth­ing would ever again be “straight­for­ward”, es­pe­cially once he and his beloved sis­ter Ann be­gan to es­cape into a par­al­lel uni­verse of ex­quis­ite botan­i­cal draw­ing. Non­sense verse soon fol­lowed. From boy­hood, Lear was “three parts crazy”, but “wholly af­fec­tion­ate”. He would only get more like him­self.

There were few in­tru­sions on his ado­les­cent soli­tude, apart from birds, es­pe­cially par­rots, his favourites. Some early zoo­log­i­cal work in­spired his vo­ca­tion as an artist. Even­tu­ally, he would ri­val Audubon. Par­rots also brought him a pa­tron, Ed­ward Smith-Stan­ley, 13th Earl of Derby, whose teem­ing fam­ily ex­posed Lear to a new au­di­ence for his gifts as an en­ter­tainer. As an artist, Lear was sup­posed to re­main be­low stairs with the ser­vants, but Stan­ley liked to have his pro­tege up­stairs to amuse his guests. Where Car­roll had Alice and the Lid­dell fam­ily, Lear had the Knowsley nurs­ery, where the Stan­ley chil­dren, their friends and nurse­maids, kept ri­otous com­pany. Un­like Car­roll, he did not sen­ti­men­talise lit­tle girls, be­tray­ing no hint of the pae­dophile. Rather, Lear loved the may­hem of child­hood to which non­sense was the only an­swer. Non­sense was in­fan­tile, rude, ec­cen­tric and grumpy, as chil­dren are. Non­sense could cel­e­brate sur­real vi­o­lence and ghoul­ish ac­ci­dents. As a rov­ing land­scape pain­ter, Lear could be ex­quis­ite. Through his crazy word­play, he could ex­press his in­ner tor­ment as a ho­mo­sex­ual sin­gle man in Vic­to­rian Eng­land.

Abroad, in Rome or Corfu, he could be “as happy as a hedge­hog” and was free to fall in love with other artists. At home, he had to present him­self, half iron­i­cally, as a man in need of a wife: “I an­tic­i­pate the chance of a Mrs Lear”, he wrote, “in 40 years hence.”

Un­like some gay Vic­to­ri­ans, who went na­tive over­seas, it was Lear’s re­spectable hope that he was “al­ways an English­man” abroad. “Mr Lear” was cer­tainly a weird bird. As he grew older, this my­opic court jester, and no­madic artist, un­able to rec­on­cile his sex­ual with his so­cial self, mor­phed into his ma­ture, ec­cen­tric per­sona.

This was the closet ho­mo­sex­ual who, in the sum­mer of 1846, came to teach draw­ing to Queen Vic­to­ria. “How did you get all th­ese beau­ti­ful things?” he ex­claimed, on first see­ing the fa­mous royal col­lec­tion. “I in­her­ited them, Mr Lear,” replied the Queen.

It’s at this point that Uglow di­verges most com­pletely from the nar­ra­tive line hewn by Noakes. Uglow’s in­ter­est in Lear’s court life is fi­nite. And yet Wind­sor did do some­thing for Lear, which was give an awk­ward, gay man re­newed self-con­fi­dence. Thus, 1846 also saw the pub­li­ca­tion of A Book of Non­sense. Uglow is good on Lear’s verse, at­tribut­ing just the right amount of con­se­quence to its sur­real caprice:

There was an Old Per­son of Rhodes, Who strongly ob­jected to toads; He paid sev­eral cousins, To catch them by dozens, That fu­tile Old Per­son of Rhodes.

On his trav­els again – now to the Holy Land – Lear fell in love with a younger man, Frank Lush­ing­ton, who would even­tu­ally com­pound Lear’s in­ner tor­ment. Uglow shows that the life of the Vic­to­rian gay man, even in pro­gres­sive cir­cles, was ex­cru­ci­at­ing. Only abroad could Lear and Lush­ing­ton en­joy a sem­blance of mar­riage – as Uglow puts it – “with­out the sex”.

In mid­dle age, Lear’s word­play had be­come quasi-Joycean, writes Uglow, “alive, pro­tean, ever evolv­ing, and find­ing new end­ings, like new limbs”. This is the Lear beloved of Au­den and Eliot. He was, says Uglow, “an eerie, queery, some­times weary, some­times cheery Ed­ward Lear”. When “cheery”, he en­joyed mo­ments that were “splen­di­dophoroph eros tip hon­gio us ”, but there was al­ways a ter­ri­ble sad­ness, too, that only non­sense could as­suage.

In 1861, Lear pub­lished a new Book of Non­sense, a huge suc­cess that would es­tab­lish him as a clas­sic. Four years later, Lewis Car­roll pub­lished Alice in Won­der­land, a very dif­fer­ent ket­tle of fish. Th­ese two Vic­to­rian giants never met, and Lear read Alice “with­out com­ment”.

Lear’s world, un­like Dodg­son’s Ox­ford idyll, was pro­vi­sional, no­madic and fraught. Lush­ing­ton got mar­ried and Lear tor­tured him­self with mat­ri­mo­nial fan­tasies. He would be “for­ever roam­ing with a hun­gry heart”. Fi­nally, the gai­ety and sad­ness of Lear’s life ex­pressed it­self in his four great­est po­ems: The Owl and the Pussy­cat, The Dong With a Lu­mi­nous Nose, Some In­ci­dents in the Life of My Un­cle Arly, and The Jum­blies, war­bling their “moony song”. He might recog­nise that he had gone “to sea in a sieve”, but he ad­mon­ished his di­ary that “the mor­bids are not al­lowed”.

This ex­tra­or­di­nary English­man died in self­im­posed iso­la­tion in San Remo aged 75. Uglow has writ­ten a great life about an artist with half a life, a biog­ra­phy that might break your heart. Ob­server

Cul­ture Club/Getty/Hul­ton Ar­chive

English one-off … Ed­ward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussy­cat, one of the coun­try’s favourite po­ems

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