“O let us be married! too long we have tarried." Granger/REX/Shutterstock ,The Granger Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Edward Lear's serious nonsense poetry

His work is wild and infused with melancholy—a new biography tells his story
April 15, 2018

As Edward Lear prepared to visit Palestine in 1857, he asked the painter William Holman Hunt for any introductions that might prove useful in Jerusalem. “Tell them you introduce a most irregular & uncomfortable fool,” wrote Lear, “partly swell—partly painter, who will never do any good—to himself or anybody else: & advise them parenthetically to stop his unpleasant rumblings by emptying a large bucket of water on his noddle.”

Lear was always ready to send himself up, and to play different parts, but rarely without a note of pensiveness or the shade of something far sadder. That “uncomfortable” insists on his social awkwardness but also hints at a figure who ultimately rebuffed the comfort of others. The character who emerges in Jenny Uglow’s sympathetic biography is that of a writer and artist dependent on a large social circle, and on its approval and patronage of his art, who could never quite bring himself to fit in.

He was a compulsive traveller who felt the need to move on as soon as he started to settle: “the less one stays in places one likes the better,” he wrote, “& so one escapes some pain. Therefore wander.” “From outside Lear appeared affable, interested, talented, funny,” writes Uglow, “but in his diary, late at night or waking ill in the mornings, the loneliness poured out.”

Lear’s solitariness developed early in life, partly through the shame he perceived in his ill health: the “particular skeleton” of his epilepsy, which he endured from childhood, would cause him private suffering into old age.

Born in 1812, and brought up in modest circumstances in north London, Lear was taken up by aristocratic patrons for his skill as a botanical and zoological draughtsman while still a young man: his first published work, a collection of spirited lithographs of parrots that were serialised in 1830-32, was funded by subscribers who included the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland and the Earl of Egremont.

But Lear was often clumsy in this unsought-for role as arriviste. Arriving for a long summer stay at Knowsley Hall in Lancashire, home to the animal-loving 13th Earl of Derby, he dined with the servants when his host was expecting him. And while giving Queen Victoria drawing lessons in 1846 (she had admired the Italian views in his recent books, and approached him for tuition), he asked his pupil where she had acquired all the beautiful objects in her display cases. “I inherited them, Mr Lear,” she replied.

Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense

by Jenny Uglow

(Faber, £25)

Artistically, too, Lear was something of an outlier. He was a self-taught artist, only enrolling in the Royal Academy Schools for a few months, and although he befriended the Pre-Raphaelites and identified with their truth-to-nature approach, he was never a fully-fledged member of the Brotherhood. He rarely showed his work in the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy and his career, wrote fellow painter Daniel Fowler, by turns prospered and floundered through “more or less patronage all his days.”

While Lear was ambitious to paint large-scale oil paintings, and took on commissions for these that helped to fund his wanderlust, he struggled to sell those canvases that he had not been specifically tasked with—and certainly not at the prices he expected them to fetch. Cedars of Lebanon, which he put up for sale for “£735 or more” in 1861, did not find a buyer until six years later, when it was bought by one of his customary backers for less than a third of that amount.

Still, Lear was a welcome guest in many households, “playing at families” with his friends. He was a compulsive performer who would entertain hosts at the piano with his own settings of Tennyson, and who was generous with the imaginative fancies with which he delighted so many children. (If not all adults: Lord Westbury, Lear recorded, scolded him for “the forcible introduction of ridiculous images calculated to distract the mind from what it is contemplating.”)

In some cases, Lear’s visits were coloured with the painful memory or continuing complication of an unfulfilled yearning: for the barrister Frank Lushington (who was “the kind of young man he took to his heart”), and later for the idea of marrying Augusta Bethell, which “ruled his life in the mid-1860s” and which he was still contemplating only months before his death in January 1888.

As Uglow observes, Lear never recorded his dreams or lusts in his otherwise extensive journals, which means that his unsatisfied desires come across more as a longing for a type of companionship he could never achieve than for sexual gratification. His most significant alliance, in some sense, was with his manservant Giorgio Kokali, a Suliot who Lear would employ from 1856 until Kokali’s death in 1883.

Uglow’s aim, as she states in the prologue, is to discover “where the art and nonsense are born”—or at least how far Lear’s biography might further our understanding of his idiosyncratic and influential body of work. “Nonsense is the breath of my nostrils,” he wrote in 1870, perhaps already sensing that these rhymes and drawings, which had so rapidly become popular after the first publication of A Book of Nonsense in 1846, would come to define his literary and artistic reputation. But it was also an admission of just how vital nonsense had become to him—as a mode of living, even of sustaining life.

In his correspondence and in person, linguistic play became a way to alight on an endearing comedy that could overrule the pervasive melancholy of the circumstances it described. The effect of pipes bursting, Lear wrote to Emily Tennyson, the poet’s wife, was that “horrible borrible squashfibulus migoposhquilous sounds were heard”; towards the end of his life, he parodied Tennyson’s poem “Mariana” with a droll realism as touching as it is pathetic: “He only said, I’m very weary. The rheumatiz he said. He said, it’s awful dull and dreary. I think I’ll go to bed.” The made-up words and pastiche allowed Lear to write about his sadness while diverting attention from it: “when matters got personal,” writes Uglow, “he tumbled into nonsense.”

One of the strengths of Uglow’s book, benefiting from the concision of the nonsense verses, is how elegantly it interleaves the pictures and poems with her account of Lear’s life (their designation as “limericks” post-dates Lear). Dozens of the verses are reproduced here, so that the nonsense comes to seem as much a mode of making sense of his character as it was for the man himself. Uglow lets the crude, sometimes cruel line drawings and pregnant, if illogical, rhymes resonate in the context of Lear’s travels and travails. “Lear’s great poems and songs are not ‘about’ his life,” she writes, “they float free. But their gaiety and sadness feel even keener when set against the tensions he saw, and suffered.”

That is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in those nonsense figures who are set apart, perched in trees or on high chairs, like absurd versions of Tennyson’s column-dwelling ascetic, St Simeon Stylites, or prey to the arbitrary justice of an undefined “They” who torment them. (For George Orwell, Lear’s “They” were “the realists, the practical men, the sober citizens in bowler hats who are always anxious to stop you doing anything worth doing.”) But it also makes itself felt in the feeling for travel that pervades the nonsense verses, in the frequently far-flung locations that provide their opening rhyme-words and in the accompanying illustrations, many of which act, in Uglow’s succinct phrase, as “diagrams of movement.”

Lear’s need to travel—his neediness for it, almost—is most palpable in his longer poems and songs, however, not least in “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” “The Jumblies” and “The Dong with the Luminous Nose.” All of these, to varying degrees, tell of the optimism in setting out, of the poignancy of nomadism, and of fantasies of resolution in a distant elsewhere. Lear’s own voyages took him throughout southern Europe, to Egypt and the Holy Land, and even to India, where the colour and light entranced him and he produced some of his most evocative watercolours (“Delhineations of the Dehlicate architecture,” of course). In his guise of a “dirty landscape painter,” he produced views of regions previously deemed too remote by topographical artists, publishing volumes on Albania and southern Calabria in the early 1850s.

One thing that Uglow’s biography never quite resolves is how far this serious artistic business tallied with his constant fabrication of nonsense, and in particular how Lear’s painstaking work on his oil paintings squared with his facility for wordplay, preposterous rhymes and comic sketches. There is a hint of their according, however, in the ease with which Lear created his watercolours when he was short of money, painting to formula to produce large numbers of what he called his “Tyrants”: he would pin up large numbers of sheets and work his way round them, adding one colour at a time, like a grandmaster playing speed chess against multiple opponents. Lear seemed more confident operating within limitations that allowed his intuitive talents to flourish.

One such structure, and perhaps ultimately the most comforting variety for Lear, was that which he found in Tennyson’s verse. Lear venerated the poet laureate, although their friendship was often strained in the way that friendships can be when one party idolises the other. He was far closer to Emily, in whom he often confided and who he once described as “10,000 angels boiled down—an essence of goodness.” When, after years of itinerancy, Lear finally began to construct a home for himself in San Remo in 1870, he named it the Villa Emily; a second, near-identical house, built in 1880 became the Villa Tennyson.

It was apt that Lear should choose to live in buildings named after the Tennysons, since for much of his life he had been living through Tennyson’s poetry. The moods that he recognised in In Memoriam, in the songs from “The Princess,” and above all in those lyric poems that had established Tennyson’s career in the 1830s seemed distillations of his own dark temperament. They could also be a means to deflect from ruminating on it too deeply. “I see no loophole of light onward, ‘tears, idle tears’ are in my eyes—tho far from happy autumn fields,” he wrote in 1870, during a period of intense self-pity.

It was Tennyson’s verse that framed Lear’s great, unfinished (and probably unfinishable) artistic project—a series of hundreds of landscapes accompanied by fragments plucked from the poems of his hero. Uglow describes this as a “pictorial autobiography […] a shifting lens focused on his own wanderings,” in which views of places that Lear had visited were enigmatically moored to Tennysonian phrases, evoking significances that were personal to the artist but remain strangely unknowable to us. Writing in 1871, he had described “the small initiative preliminary pestilential pseudo perry derry pumpkinious beginnings for the Tennyson work.” Nonsense was his most serious idiom, after all.