Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Non­sense by Jenny Uglow Mark Amory


Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Non­sense By Jenny Uglow Faber £25.00 Oldie price £17.50 inc p&p

In 1886, when Ruskin was asked by an even­ing news­pa­per to list his favourite writ­ers, he replied, ‘I re­ally don’t know any au­thor to whom I am half so grate­ful, for my idle self, as Ed­ward Lear. I shall place him first of my hun­dred au­thors.’

The 74-year-old Lear, liv­ing in rather lonely re­tire­ment on the Ital­ian Riviera, was thrilled at this en­dorse­ment from the lead­ing art critic of the age, even as he savoured its slightly bit­ter irony. He had come to recog­nise, and ac­cept, that his en­dur­ing legacy would be, not as the great artist he had hoped to be­come, but as a writer of ‘Non­sense’.

This dis­par­ity be­tween Lear’s early artis­tic hopes and his later lit­er­ary achieve­ments was just one among many ten­sions that dot­ted his life – with­out ever oblit­er­at­ing his sense of fun, or his rel­ish for the ab­surd.

Jenny Uglow ele­gantly and per­cep­tively weaves the strands of Lear’s pri­vate and pro­fes­sional worlds to­gether in this hand­somely pro­duced bi­og­ra­phy. She builds up a vivid sense of the man – ge­nial and hu­mor­ous, but prone to de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety; his so­cia­bil­ity tem­pered by in­de­pen­dence; his de­sire for recog­ni­tion bal­anced by a dis­trust for all the forces of the Vic­to­rian con­ven­tion­al­ity – forces em­bod­ied by the dis­ap­prov­ing ‘They’ of so many of this Lim­er­icks. (The term ‘Lim­er­ick’, though not coined un­til af­ter Lear’s death, has al­ways been al­lowed in the dis­cus­sion of his work.)

Uglow, very sen­si­bly, keeps the Non­sense, and the won­der­ful il­lus­tra­tions that ac­com­pa­nied it, al­ways in sight, show­ing how the tales of rest­less travel, of in­no­cent hope, of so­cial os­tracism, of un­re­quited pas­sion and lone­li­ness, of the sieve-voy­ag­ing Jum­blies and the lovelorn Dong with his Lu­mi­nous Nose, all sprang from the ten­sions of Lear’s life.

Be­hind much of Lear’s own sense of oth­er­ness lay the stu­diously con­cealed fact of his epilepsy. He suf­fered mi­nor at­tacks from child­hood on­wards, but kept them se­cret. Able to recog­nise the on­set of an episode, he would with­draw from what­ever com­pany he was in and suf­fer in pri­vate. His be­lief that the af­flic­tion was in­her­i­ta­ble, con­vinced him that it would be un­wise to marry, adding an­other check to his emo­tional life.

The twen­ti­eth of twenty-one chil­dren, he was brought up largely by an el­der sis­ter, and re­mained dis­tant from his mother. In adult­hood, he de­vel­oped an un­re­solved, and un­re­quited, pas­sion for Frank Lush­ing­ton, a young, and rather dull, lawyer in the colo­nial ser­vice. He teetered also on the brink of propos­ing to a well-con­nected woman some twenty years his ju­nior, but drew back at the last mo­ment. He en­joyed a close and sup­port­ive friend­ship with Emily, wife of his lit­er­ary hero, Al­fred Lord Ten­nyson. And, at the end of his life, at San Remo, he found con­tented com­pan­ion­ship with a tail­less cat, Foss.

Through th­ese emo­tional ups and downs, he charted his pro­fes­sional course – as an artist – with im­pres­sive en­ergy and fluc­tu­at­ing suc­cess.

Lear’s rep­u­ta­tion as a painter, af­ter a long eclipse, has been re­viv­ing steadily. A ma­jor ret­ro­spec­tive at the Royal Academy in 1985 re­vealed his im­pres­sive ver­sa­til­ity, his bold sense of rhyth­mic com­po­si­tion and his rel­ish for limpid colour. This book sets the full range of his work in the con­text of its time, and – in the process – pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into the work­ings of the midVic­to­rian art world.

Amongst Lear’s ear­li­est artis­tic projects were a beau­ti­ful vol­ume – pub­lished for 175 sub­scribers – il­lus­trat­ing, in glo­ri­ous de­tail, the dif­fer­ent par­rot species at London Zoo, and a com­mis­sion from the Earl of Derby to record, with the same pre­ci­sion, his pri­vate menagerie at Knowsley. (It was there – with mirth abound­ing – that Lear com­posed his ear­li­est non­sense verses, to amuse the earl’s chil­dren.)

Chest complaints, and a love of travel, then en­cour­aged him to seek warmer climes. He en­joyed long so­journs in Rome, South­ern Italy, Al­ba­nia, Egypt, and Corfu. And the deft sketches and wa­ter­colours he made on th­ese trav­els formed the ba­sis for a se­ries of vividly il­lus­trated travel books.

He then de­vel­oped an un­ex­pected friend­ship with Wil­liam Hol­man Hunt, from whom he sought to learn the rudi­ments of large-scale oil paint­ing. As a re­sult, he suc­cess­fully ex­hib­ited topo­graph­i­cal works at the Royal Academy and else­where in the early 1850s. But in 1862, his vast pic­ture of cedars (orig­i­nally sketched in Le­banon, but worked up from a fine stand of the trees in the gar­den of the Oat­lands Park Ho­tel, Sur­rey) was ‘skied’ at the Great In­ter­na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion in South Kens­ing­ton, and dis­missed by the Times’ art critic. It was un­sold for years. Lear joked that he would have to turn it into a coat or a floor cov­er­ing. Af­ter that, he re­sorted to churn­ing out small views, in se­ries – ‘Tyrants’, he called them.

Any de­cline in Lear’s artis­tic rep­u­ta­tion, how­ever, was more than bal­anced by the grow­ing

ap­pre­ci­a­tion of his ‘Non­sense’ – pub­lished in a suc­ces­sion of ever more pop­u­lar vol­umes. It was an ex­change that he ac­cepted with typ­i­cal self­dep­re­ca­tion: ‘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.’

And, cer­tainly, get­ting to know Mr Lear with Ms Uglow as a guide is very pleas­ant in­deed.

‘He marks his ter­ri­tory with such thor­ough­ness’

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