His work is wild and infused with melancholy—a new biography tells his storyby Thomas Marks / April 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.