Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense by Jenny Uglow - review by A N Wilson

A N Wilson

There Once Was a Man from San Remo

Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense


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Jenny Uglow, Edward Lear’s most sensitive biographer to date, does him proud. She follows him patiently on all his travels, but she also explores the inner journeys suggested by the works that made Lear famous: not so much the botanical and zoological illustrations by which he earned his living as a very young man or the landscapes of his maturity as the nonsense rhymes. Uglow says that nonsense verse came to Lear when his mind was ‘off-duty’.

She brings out the ironies and beauties of his most famous poem, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, which was composed for a shy little girl called Janet Symonds. The happiness of the oddly matched pair in the poem was not mirrored by Janet’s parents. Her mother, Catherine North, was fully aware of the lifelong ‘Grecian’ compulsions of her husband, the poet John Addington Symonds, who had been at the centre of one of the most carefully hushed-up public-school scandals of the era at Harrow and whose posthumously published writings throw the most vivid possible light on the hidden gay world of Victorian England, which was far from gay. ‘Sadness rolled in like the sea mist,’ writes Jenny Uglow of Lear’s visit to Southwold in the late 1860s, when he stayed with the Lushington family. Frank Lushington, by now a successful lawyer and established paterfamilias, had been Lear’s miserable obsession for a decade in their youth.

Tennyson and his wife were among Lear’s other friends. Tennyson wrote an appreciation of Lear’s Journals of a Landscape Painter in Greece and Albania (‘Illyrian woodlands, echoing falls/Of water, sheets of summer glass’). And Lear repaid the compliment by doing copious illustrations of Tennyson’s poems. ‘Lear always felt that there was a vein of poetry within his art, but doubted that it would come out. In the Tennyson drawings it did,’ Uglow writes. In the case of both Lear and Tennyson, Uglow gives the sense that their introspection and private melancholy – their very non-public selves – were what enabled them to speak so effectively to an enormous audience, both in their own time and since. Of the two, however, it is Lear, translating the numbness of private sorrows into nonsense, who seems the more modern. Uglow wisely analyses this limerick:

There was an Old Man of Nepaul
From his horse had a terrible fall
But though quite split in two, By some very strong glue,
They mended the Man of Nepaul.

‘The glue of the rhyme sticks the pieces together,’ she writes, ‘but in the drawing the man’s two halves are still wide apart.’

That, really, is the essence of this psychologically brilliant portrait of Lear. There was at his core an unmendable dissonance, reflective of his times. I can still recollect, as a very young teenager, seeing for the first time Lear’s landscapes in an art gallery and simply assuming that they were the work of another Edward Lear. The supreme confidence and wonderful light of the oils and watercolours disguise, whereas the jagged strangeness of the drawings rip open, a divided self. The landscapes depict Europe, Egypt and India, unwrecked by mass tourism or mechanical war, basking in staged light. The jagged figures of the drawings seem to belong to the 20th century, post-Otto Dix.

Yet we can now see that Lear’s stupendous landscapes of Italy, Greece, Palestine and India reflect his age: the Victorian travellers wandered the earth, both as everlasting outsiders and as would-be colonisers (same thing?). There were reasons aplenty for not wanting to be in England, including the festering injustices, the poverty-stricken filth of the cities and the stifling weight of suburban morality. Lear, who was mildly epileptic, gay and depressive, spent as much time as he could out of the place.

Uglow does not speculate about the physical side of Lear’s homosexual life. But she does believe that his ‘troubled’ sexuality undoubtedly contributed both to his depressions and to his sense of being an ‘outsider’. The ‘they’ in so many of the grotesquely illustrated limericks are usually baffled by the strange subjects described:

There was an Old Man at a casement,
Who held up his hands in amazement;
When they said, ‘Sir, you’ll fall’, He replied, ‘Not at all!’
That incipient Old Man at a casement.

Uglow writes, ‘Lear was not alone in worrying that the rules “they” imposed to maintain order could throttle individuals, or in his concern with society’s failure to absorb the “different”, the foreign, the odd, the disruptive.’ This is well said, but one could add to it the fact that Victorian England was a powerful mixture of contrasts. This stultifyingly conventional society was presided over by the deeply unconventional Queen Victoria, whom Lear taught to draw. Largely foreign, her best friends and closest loves were a German prince, a Scottish ghillie and an Indian prison clerk. Tennyson, one of Lear’s closest friends, was both the poet laureate who, more than anyone else in the history of that office, matched and reflected the national mood, and also somebody who was and felt a complete outsider. Perhaps one of the reasons so many Victorians were happier abroad, either as travellers, like Lear, or as empire builders, is that ‘they’ were a figment of the imagination. Perhaps everyone was ‘different’ and everyone felt themselves to be outsiders? One of the reasons for this was surely the fluidity of the class system. The upper-middle or rentier class who came to the fore in the 19th century were only a generation or so away from provincial modesties and the embarrassments of humiliating trades. Lear, who always felt distant from his parents, was largely brought up by Ann, his much older sister, and was an involuntary participant in the class nonsense.

This wonderfully rich account of Lear’s life tells the whole story, from his birth in 1812 to a London business family that nearly fell into the Dickensian disgrace of debt after the Napoleonic Wars (his father just escaped the debtors’ jail) to his death in San Remo in 1888 in his mid-seventies, a sort of ‘national treasure’ in exile.

It is a familiar enough tale, but seeing Lear through Uglow’s attentive, aesthetically acute eyes, we are reacquainted with his prodigious skills as an artist. His early illustrations of birds and animals for natural history manuals (when he was employed by the Zoological Society in London) are wonderful. He had a particular affinity with parrots and drew them superbly. Then came the phase when he lived at Knowsley in Lancashire at the house of the Earl of Derby. His task was to depict the earl’s menagerie, and it was there that he began to make up verses to amuse the children in the nursery.

By his late twenties, Lear’s success as an artist-illustrator was assured and his relatively short life as a landscape painter could begin. He had spells in Rome and travelled around Greece, Palestine and India. In the early 1870s, he eventually settled in San Remo. He never went home. His later years were blessed by the companionship of Giorgio Kokali, his faithful servant-cum-companion, who, among the many services he performed, helped Lear reduce his dependency on alcohol. Initially, when they came together, Giorgio had shocked Lear by revealing that he was married and had children, but later Lear took Giorgio’s son as his servant. Lear’s grave in San Remo is next to a memorial stone to Giorgio, rather than alongside the many British expats buried in the city. They are ‘they’. ‘The morbids are not allowed!’ he had told himself fiercely when depression threatened his lovesick middle age. It was a good motto. He kept his quizzical, whimsical distances.

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