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There Once Was an Artist Called Lear…

Edward Lear: Tepeleni, Albania, circa 1848–1849; from Edward Lear in Albania

Nineteen children preceded him into a world that he could never quite take seriously but that hurt and tormented him all the same. The great writer of nonsense poetry Edward Lear, born in 1812, was the twentieth of twenty-one children. The Lear household was prosperous, despite its slew of dependents. It was located in Highgate, in those days a charming rural village not yet swallowed up by London. Edward’s father was a stockbroker. His mother, it seems safe to say, had her hands full with the children.

Too full, it appears. The father’s business collapsed in 1816, and the family lacked the means, financial and psychological, to hold itself intact. In time, Edward was effectively turned over to his eldest sister, Ann, twenty-one years older than he. In his later years, Edward spoke reverently of her: “Ever all she was to me was good, & what I should have been unless she had been my mother I dare not think.”

Lear’s childhood was beset by two further tribulations. The first was physical: epilepsy, which arrived when he was about five. He called it “the Demon” in his journals, and it was a lifelong affliction. Lear was an unforthcoming man, much of whose inner life can only be guessed at, but to judge by how zealously he guarded his secret (even close friends were unaware of his condition), and by his tendency to blame his attacks on a failure of willpower, his illness was probably his life’s defining burden.

The second difficulty was psychological: bouts of what we would likely call depression and what he referred to—with seemingly self-defensive offhandedness—as “the Morbids.” At the age of sixty-four, reminiscing in his diary, he wrote:

The earliest of all the morbidnesses I can recollect must have been somewhere about 1819—when my father took me to a field near Highgate, where was a rural performance of gymnastic clowns &c.,—& a band. The music was good,—at least it attracted me:—& the sunset & twilight I remember as if yesterday. And I can recollect crying half the night after all the small gaiety broke up—& also suffering for days at the memory of the past scene.

All his life, Lear had a heightened sense of the perishability of pleasure and joy. Or you might say that, from a very young age, happiness made him sad.

Even so, Lear possessed considerable inner resources. Although he forever regretted his lack of formal artistic training, he was a precociously gifted draftsman. He began making an artist’s pick-up living at about the age of fifteen—selling illustrations to shops, offering drawing lessons. A few years later, after sketching and studying at the Gardens of the London Zoological Society, he produced the first two folios of Illustrations of the family of Psittacidae, or Parrots. This was a milestone in English ornithology—the first book devoted to a single family of birds, and the first drawn chiefly from live rather than stuffed models—and an amazing accomplishment for a teenager.

He had as well a gift for eliciting help from those well suited to help him: he secured influential patrons throughout his life. This knack seems to have been a result less of studied ingratiation than of freshness and likability of spirit. Lear’s work at the zoo led to an acquaintance with the society’s president, Lord Stanley, heir to the Earl of Derby, who invited the young man to his estate, Knowsley, to draw the animals of his private menagerie. Lear was soon told he would be ” one of us—and not dine with the servants.” He got along with everyone at Knowsley, but was especially popular in the nursery, where he entertained the children with songs and nonsense poems and drawings; he was preparing for a future he could hardly yet envision.

Lear also had great vigor and a robust willingness to overlook bodily discomfort—a combination that served him well in adult life, when he supported himself largely as a travel writer and landscape artist. He shifted from natural history illustration to landscapes while still in his twenties, and still in England; he lived most of his adult life abroad, chiefly in Italy, from which he undertook long and arduous artistic pilgrimages (what he called a “stopping, prying, lingering mode of travel”). A handsome example of this line of work was recently reissued as Edward Lear in Albania: Journals of a Landscape Painter in the Balkans.1

These journals present a useful reminder that while Lear is best known today for his poetry, his creative energies were mainly devoted to the visual arts. His poetry came easily; it is difficult to imagine him tortured over the resolution to a limerick. But the business of being a landscape artist, particularly of his venturesome sort, meant real work, and Edward Lear in Albania is a cheerful catalog of trials and woes: frightful weather, inedible food, dangerous diseases, precarious mountain trails. There were delays and forced detours, language barriers, and constant fretting that the goods he was transporting for future use—sketches for landscape paintings—were fragile and irreplaceable.

Moments arise in Edward Lear in Albania when he plainly questions the whole enterprise. Couldn’t he contrive a sedentary and comfortable existence in England—some snug studio from which to produce a remunerative stream of work? And yet—one of Lear’s most likable traits—he was forever coming upon some remote sight that struck him as unparalleled and not to be missed. His letters and travel journals abound in words like “most” and “greatest” and “deepest.” Over the decades Lear the landscapist moved through a shifting terrain of superlatives. Here he is in his twenties on a first trip to Italy: “As for scenery— it was quite beyond anything I had seen..” And in Athens in his thirties: “Poor old scrubby Rome sinks into nothing by the side of such beautiful magnificence.” And in Egypt in his forties: “I think the sunset last night was the most astonishingly beautiful I ever saw.” And in Malta in his fifties: “No words can describe its magnificence.” And in India in his sixties: “O new palms! O flowers! O creatures! O beasts! Anything more overpoweringly amazing cannot be conceived!”

Edward Lear in Albania left me pondering a hypothetical reader: If someone stumbled onto this book without knowing of Lear’s reputation as an enduring, if minor, English poet, would he or she have any inkling of Lear’s literary stature? What exactly connects Lear the painter and Lear the poet?

The book imparts almost no sense of Lear’s reading, the literary spirits he might have been seeking to commune or contend with during his travels. Most of the few literary references are to Byron, only because he happened to precede Lear to Albania by a couple of decades. Sentence by sentence, the book gives scant indication of a poet’s sensibility, for Lear was a slapdash prose stylist. Edward Lear in Albania often seeks to portray panoramic landscapes through words, a challenge that typically elicited from Lear sweeping and obvious adjectives: “noble,” “majestic,” “sublime.” He was especially fond of “picturesque,” which at one point appears three times in a single paragraph.

The book’s reproductions of Lear’s watercolors show a stickler’s taste for precision not always found in his prose. And yet within them—as in so many of his drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings of foreign landscapes—there’s a hard-to-place air of unreality in which a nonsense writer might feel at home. His trees tend to writhe with some just faintly human perturbation; his perhaps slightly elongated mountains lunge with their own mineral longings. It is as though what is to be exalted must first become enchanted.

Yet the journal-keeping landscape painter and the nonsense poet seem most closely allied in moments of unease or jarring incongruity, often involving sleepless nights:

I lie, barricaded by boxes and bundles from the vicinity of the stable, and enduring with patience the fierce attacks of numberless fleas. All the [inn] sleeps, save two cats, which indulge in festive bouncings, and save a sleepless donkey, which rolls too contiguously to my head.


In the middle of the night, the roof of Seid Efféndi’s house being slight, a restless stork put one of his legs through the crevice and could not extricate it; whereon ensued much kicking and screams, and at the summons came half the storks in Thessaly, and all night long the uproar was portentous. Four very wet jackdaws also came down the chimney and hopped over me and about the room till dawn.

Either scene might plausibly find its way into nonsense verse. And at one juncture the landscape painter and the nonsense writer felt indissolubly fused: “At length we reached Draghiádhes, the houses of which were by no means pretty, being one and all like the figures of ‘H was a House,’ in a child’s spelling-book.”

For the most part, painter and poet seem like complementary rather than coextensive aspects of the same person. Lear’s painterly aspirations lay with the conventionally beautiful—the noble, the majestic, the sublime—while as a poet (and as an illustrator of his poems) he aimed for something antic and oddly angled. This division may reflect less a schism of personality than a savvy personal recognition of where his respective talents lay. Lear had the modest wisdom to see he was no Tennyson.

And yet he revered his friend Tennyson—that exemplar of the noble, majestic, sublime—who once wrote a tribute to Lear, “To E.L., on his Travels in Greece” (“I read and felt that I was there”). For more than three decades Lear toiled on a collection of illustrations to Tennyson’s poems. The project never saw completion (although a lovely selection, Edward Lear’s Tennyson, edited by Ruth Pitman, commemorated in 1988 the centenary of Lear’s death2), and yet it remains a harmonic ideal: a zone where the painter’s most high-minded images would pair with words equally lofty and fine.

Vivien Noakes, the preeminent living Lear scholar, provides an introduction to Edward Lear in Albania. She also has produced a graceful biography, Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer, and—more significant still—she edited The Complete Verse and Other Nonsense, which incorporated previously unpublished material. The latter volume, which includes an introduction, a table of dates, and extensive notes and indices, for the first time assembles a satisfactory single-volume portrait of Lear’s range and achievement.

Lear broke sharply with his literary forebears. He was not one for the grand scale—beside light verse masters like Pope and Dryden, his work looks trifling and odd—and he lacked the flow and facility of contemporaries like W.M. Praed and C.S. Calverley, who turned out vers de societé of lacerating finesse. And yet Lear’s poems, especially when set beside their jittery and forceful accompanying drawings, seem modern in a way that those of his predecessors and contemporaries often do not. He prefigures cartoonist-wordsmiths like James Thurber, Walt Kelly (the creator of “Pogo”), Edward Gorey, and Richard Wilbur, who similarly has illustrated his own nonsense poems.

  1. 1

    In addition, a beautiful catalog of his early landscape drawings, Edward Lear the Landscape Artist: Tours of Ireland and the English Lakes, 1835 & 1836, has just appeared in England through the Wordsworth Trust.

  2. 2


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