How baffling to know Mr Lear

In her biography of Edward Lear, Sara Lodge engages with the contradictions at the heart of a man determined to both express and conceal himself

Ranti Williams

“Lear showing a doubting stranger his name in his hat to prove that Edward Lear was a man and not merely a name”, 1866: Lear continually caricatured himself

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.

So wrote Edward Lear and a Miss Bevan in 1879. This extract from their longer collaboration is not a bad summary of what Sara Lodge seeks to convey in her new book on the Victorian author and artist whose “The Owl and the Pussycat” was voted the nation’s favourite childhood poem in 2014. “So little is known of the late Edward Lear, the nonsense Laureate,” The Globe commented in 1889, just a year after Lear’s death at his Italian home in San Remo. Now, 140 years later, comprehensive biographies including Jenny Uglow’s recent Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense and Vivien Noakes’s pioneering Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer, mean that we know far more. However, Sara Lodge seeks to add her own unique perspective and, while she introduces the book as an “academic discussion”, Inventing Edward Lear is clearly borne of a very personal love of Lear’s work. The book makes a valiant effort at tackling Lear’s “volumes of stuff” — his prolific output not just as a poet but as an artist, musician, travel writer, diarist and correspondent. In the final chapter, from which the book derives its title, Lodge engages with some of the contradictions at the heart of a man deeply concerned to create a persona with which to both express and conceal himself.

Lodge’s own personal fascination with Lear is easy to understand. While she never quite makes the claim that Lear was a tortured genius, he certainly had the background of one. Born in Holloway in 1812 as one of at least 17 children and subsequently neglected by his mother, Lear suffered the material consequences and social stigma of his stockbroker father’s bankruptcy. This complex background was further darkened, Lodge claims, by the high likelihood that Lear was the victim of fraternal child abuse which he himself called “the greatest evil done to me in life”. On top of this layered family trauma, Lear was a lifelong sufferer of asthma, epilepsy and depression. And yet, surprisingly, the product of these difficult circumstances was not a social recluse but a textbook extrovert. Lear described himself in an 1867 letter to Lady Waldegrave as “a queer beast to have so many friends” and Lodge concurs that “[Lear’s] talent for friendship was perhaps his greatest gift”.

Indeed, Lodge does well to convey vividly Lear’s extraordinary genius for friendship, showing just how well acquainted he was among the great and good of Victorian society. Not only did he give drawing lessons to Queen Victoria but he knew the poet laureate Alfred Tennyson, who wrote a poem for him, “To E.L., on His Travels in Greece”, while Tennyson’s wife, Emily, was Lear’s close confidante and correspondent. In addition, Lear was a regular guest of the Earl of Derby and later struck up professional and personal links with William Holman Hunt, whom Lear called “Daddy” in acknowledgement of the pre-Raphaelite luminary’s artistic pre-eminence. It would appear that Lear’s social compulsion, his need for connection and his desire and ability to make friends, shaped his choice of limerick and nonsense verse forms. Lodge posits that “nonsense is . . . a game in which the reader is invited to take an active part” and it is easy to see how literary absurdity draws together reader and writer as intimate co-conspirators in silliness.

Although now best known for his nonsense poetry and limericks, Lear was a quintessential polymath. Lodge works hard to convince her readers of Lear’s cultural and intellectual breadth, squarely resisting the reductive readings of critics such as George Orwell, who famously dismissed Lear’s “amiable lunacy”. More than once, Lodge reminds us that Lear was a voracious and eclectic reader with a “wide range of cultural influences — from Byron to Bird and Baylis to Beuler, from Turner to Thomas Hudson and Tennyson.” While still a teenager, Lear received commissions as a skilled zoological artist specialising in parrots — three species of which, including Anodorhynchus lear, otherwise known as Lear’s macaw, are named after him. Indeed, for much of his life, Lear made a living as a travelling landscape painter of foreign scenes for subscribers back in England. In addition, although not formally musically trained, Lear set the poetry of Shelley and Tennyson to music and was a popular pianist and performer in some of the smartest drawing rooms of the time. Lodge seeks to capture the multiple facets of Lear’s talent by avoiding the chronological structure of Jenny Uglow’s biography in favour of academic essay-based chapters dealing with various aspects of his life and art.

This structure has its benefits: the first chapter on “Music and Memory” reveals Lear as a passionate and gifted musician and sheds fascinating light on other aspects of his art, not least his distinctive use of evocative noises in his nonsense verse. This chapter also introduces us to Lear’s affinity with the deaf children of his friend, Sir Thomas Fairbairn, and the ways in which his drawings so often sought to convey sound in a visual way.

Similarly, Lodge’s second chapter, “Nonsense and Nonconformity”, outlining Lear’s furious rejection of biblical Christian orthodoxy, provides a novel and intriguing frame from within which to view rejection of authority in Lear’s work. As Lodge points out, while much Victorian children’s literature was didactically moralistic, Lear’s limericks and nonsense verse celebrate those who do not conform to societal norms. The “wayward old man of Kilkenny”, the “old Person of Chili/Whose conduct was painful and silly”, and the “old Person of Ischia/Whose conduct grew friskier and friskier”, are just three examples of unrestrainable unruliness in Lear’s work. Figures like these show how Lear, who could not bear sermons and exploded with rage at any suggestion of God as righteous judge, peoples his poems with characters who are prone to outbursts of inappropriate behaviour. “I am weary of restraint ever,” Lear wrote in his diary in 1860 and “Nonsense and Nonconformity” strikingly introduces us to Lear’s unrestrained anger at its sharpest edge. It is the chapter which brings us closest to the artist whose real character must at times have borne more resemblance to his “irascible old person of Bangor” than to his genial, bumbling self-portraits.

Other chapters are less successful. A focus on “Queer Beasts” has Lodge ruminate confusingly, and ultimately fruitlessly, on whether inter-species love in Lear’s poems might provide insights into the vexed question of his sexuality. However, this chapter also draws our attention to the extraordinary scientific context in which Lear, who spent many hours sketching at the London Zoo, lived. Lear was both a member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and a keen, if late, reader of Charles Darwin’s contemporary writing. As a result, Lear’s work, especially his drawings of animals and his beautiful Nonsense Botany, appears to both salute and parody the feverish scientific discovery and taxonomy of his day. Even as Darwin’s theory of evolution suggested how, over time, one species might change into another, Lear was drawing fictional mutations of his own. Lodge perceptively comments how “[Lear’s] pen catches life at the quick edge of change”, life in which people and animals are not so different after all.

Indeed, many of Lear’s sketches of human-animal hybrids consist of less than flattering versions of himself, as an irritating bee, surreal snail or portly partridge. Even when Lear sketched himself as human, he was prone to distort or exaggerate at least one of his fairly average physical features. Time and time again, Lear depicted himself as clumsier and more grotesque than he actually was. Lodge describes Lear’s self-caricature as “a celebration of a character whose every quality is ambiguously delightful and repulsive”, the work of a man whose “self-fashioning was insistently performative”. Given what Lear’s diary and letters reveal about his spells of acute depression — or what he called his “morbidiousness” — it seems natural to make links between the constant distortions of his self-image and his mental illness. Lear’s collaborative autobiographical verse with Miss Bevan continues:

His mind is concrete and fastidious,
His nose is remarkably big,
His visage is uncommonly hideous
And his beard it resembles a wig.

The great achievement of Lodge’s richly illustrated and carefully researched and referenced work is to convey the reach and rigour of Lear’s “concrete and fastidious” mind alongside his discomfiting combination of dazzling self-confidence and intense self-loathing. Lodge compellingly contends that Edward Lear’s greatest creation was not the Scroobius Pip or The Owl and The Pussycat or even his sweeping oil landscape of the Marble Rocks at Jabalpur in India, but Edward Lear himself. Like the Romantic poets, whose melodramatic style and self-regard he both admired and slyly parodied, Edward Lear was his own favourite subject.

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