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’