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.