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…

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