Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense

Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense

by Jenny Uglow


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A sparkling biography of the poet and artist Edward Lear by the award-winning biographer Jenny Uglow

Edward Lear, the renowned English artist, musician, author, and poet, lived a vivid, fascinating life, but confessed, “I hardly enjoy any one thing on earth while it is present.” He was a man in a hurry, “running about on railroads” from London to country estates and boarding steamships to Italy, Corfu, India, and Palestine. He is still loved for his “nonsenses,” from startling, joyous limericks to great love poems like “The Owl and the Pussy Cat” and “The Dong with a Luminous Nose,” and he is famous, too, for his brilliant natural history paintings, landscapes, and travel writing. But although Lear belongs solidly to the age of Darwin and Dickens—he gave Queen Victoria drawing lessons, and his many friends included Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelite painters—his genius for the absurd and his dazzling wordplay make him a very modern spirit. He speaks to us today.

Lear was a man of great simplicity and charm—children adored him—yet his humor masked epilepsy, depression, and loneliness. Jenny Uglow’s beautifully illustrated biography, full of the color of the age, brings us his swooping moods, passionate friendships, and restless travels. Above all, Mr. Lear shows how this uniquely gifted man lived all his life on the boundaries of rules and structures, disciplines and desires—an exile of the heart.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374113339
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/17/2018
Pages: 608
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Jenny Uglow has written biographies of Elizabeth Gaskell, William Hogarth, and Sarah Losh, and the double-prize-winning The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World. Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick won the National Arts Writers Award, and A Gambling Man: Charles II’s Restoration Game was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize. She lives in Canterbury, England.

Read an Excerpt



O Brother Chicken! Sister Chick!
Lear was intrigued by beginnings: the growth and structure of plants, the inherited make-up and habits of birds, animals and humans, the child's acquisition of language. He was moved by the way civilisations rose and faded, and by the progress of life itself, evolving from primitive forms, crawling from the sea. He wrote his lighthearted verse of the chicken and the egg in his late sixties. Accepting mystery, fluidity, doubt, he came to the conclusion 'that we are not wholly responsible for our lives i.e., – our acts, in so far as congenital circumstances, physical or psychical over which we have no absolute control, prevent our being so.' We have partial control, but it is too hard, too late, as adults, 'to change the lines we have early begun to trace and follow'. He was formed, he felt, by a mix of nature and nurture, setting him always at variance with 'they'.

The first 'they' were his family. He was small and they were many, talking, bossing, teasing, ignoring. He was a part, yet set apart. His mother, Ann, had been pregnant almost constantly after she married his father, Jeremiah, in 1788. The babies came year after year, and names were used and reused until one survived, a litany of hope. Thus: Ann, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Mary, Henry, Henry, Eleanor, Jane, Harriett, Cordelia, Frederick, Florence, Charles, Catherine, Edward, Catherine. Different lists are confused as to whether there were seventeen, nineteen or twenty-one babies (as Lear often claimed). The first Catherine, born about 1811, must have died just before or while Ann was pregnant with Edward: death and birth, burial and cradles, so close together, a conjunction that perhaps spurred rejection.

The Lear family were nonconformists (Lear often jumped angrily to defend dissenters against complacent Anglicans, 'bigots and fools'), and most of the children were baptised by Joseph Brooksbank, the pastor of the Independent church that met in Haberdasher's Hall in Staining Lane, off Wood Street in Cheapside. In this respect they were city babies, christened in the street where Wordsworth's 'Poor Susan' heard the song of the thrush and thought of her mountain home. Edward, the thirteenth baby to live past infancy, was born late at night on 12 May 1812 – four months after Dickens, a few days after Browning. Until his middle age, he kept his birthday on the 13th, but then started to celebrate it on the 12th. Was he ducking an unlucky day? He was born, he told a friend, at half past eleven at night, so late that it seemed to the busy household like the next day. He looked up through a ladder of brothers and sisters, the nearest to him being Charles, aged three when Lear was born, Florence, six and Fred, who was seven. Within months his mother was pregnant again – her last child, a second Catherine, arrived the following November.

* * *

In late middle age Lear began to look back on his life, he said, as 'a series of pictures seen through "Memory's Arch"'. Often, when his mind went back to these days, he was feeling sad, or ill, and muddled the dates. And he made things up for fun, like the family descent from a Dane called Lør, who had allegedly changed his name, in graphic Lear style, by removing a horizontal line and sliding Lør to Lear. 'As for memory,' Lear quipped when he was seventy, 'I remember lots of things before I was born, & quite distinctly remember being born at Highgate 12 May 1812.' Nonsense, of course, but what he did remember were the stories told by his eldest sister, Ann, who grew up in his father's golden days.

Jeremiah Lear's great-grandfather was a Dorset butcher's son who came to London in the late seventeenth century and set up first, the story goes, as a gingerbread baker in Soho. To succeed in this mercantile city it was useful to belong to a livery company, and in the 1720s the baker's son, George, joined the Fruiterers' Company, one of the oldest guilds, becoming a Freeman and eventually Master. From this point on, making a lucrative move into sugar refining, the family ran a firm on the London wharfs, importing raw sugar from Jamaica and re- exporting to Hamburg. Strict dissenters, they built links with the Hamburg Lutheran Church in Trinity Lane – something that Lear, who had a rooted, if mysterious, dislike of Germans, chose to blot out, as he did any mention of money based on slavery. George's grandson, Jeremiah, joined the family sugar-boiling business run by his widowed mother in Thames Street. At thirty-one, he married the nineteen-year- old Ann Clark Skerrett from Whitechapel, but Ann felt herself above the London trades, mourning a lost inheritance from forebears on her mother's side, the Brignalls of Sunniside, south-west of Gateshead in the Durham coalfields.

The couple were always said to have eloped, and the truth, if less dramatic, still suggested parental disapproval: a quiet wedding in Wanstead, away from their home parish, with only the clerk and a passer-by for witness. Jeremiah brought his bride sugar, if not honey, and plenty of money. In 1799, when his oldest daughter Ann was eight, and Sarah and Mary were four and three, he became a Freeman of the City and Master of the Fruiterers. For the girls there were glimpses of City pomp, of their father setting off in his livery with the Master's badge, an oval of Adam and Eve with the apple. Every November the Fruiterers marched to present the Lord Mayor with twelve bushels of apples, packed into white baskets from Faringdon market, and then to a banquet in the columned Egyptian Hall of the Mansion House, with servants scurrying beneath the swinging chandeliers.

Although Jeremiah went on attending at the Fruiterers', he left sugar refining to become a broker in the City: the family home was in Pentonville, on the northern outskirts, while the business address was now 'Pinner's Court, Broad Street and Stock Exchange'. In the long years of the French wars, from 1793 to 1815, the City grew in strength, with issues of bonds and raising of loans, but business was risky. Men could make a fortune but they could easily go bankrupt, as Jeremiah's young nephew Henry Chesmer did after speculating in Spanish wool, becoming embroiled in a court case that would go on for years. Jeremiah was lucky, at least to begin with. He took a share when the stock exchange became a formal subscription body in 1801, to raise money to build a new Exchange in Capel Court, and in 1806 he moved his family west to Bowman's Lodge, a villa in Holloway. On today's map it would be at the Nag's Head crossroads, where the Seven Sisters Road joins the Holloway Road. But then the Seven Sisters Road did not exist: beyond the side garden there was only a narrow alley, cutting through to the old Heames Lane. It felt like the country.

This was where Lear was born. In 1863, when he was fifty, after his sister Ann died, he went back to look at their old house, finding that roads now covered the garden and paddocks, and men were demolishing the house for building materials. He had been to look at 'old Bowman's Lodge, & its Limes' five years before when he happened to be nearby, but this time a woman showed him round. It was like a parody of the broken eggshell from which he emerged. Some of the steps were gone and so were small rooms like the study and conservatory, the 'greenhouse room'. New buildings were all around. But the parlour, he said, 'at once annihilated 50 years': the room was empty, but there were the two bookcases, '& the old "Secretary" my father used to write at – I saw every possible evening for years. Would I could see the pictures as they were!!' An inventory made in 1845, when the house was sold to become a girls' school, describes the fittings: 'Two mahogany doors, Recess Bookcases with glazed doors, secretaire drawers, paneled doors under, & shelves'. It was a fine place for the master of the house, the collector of pictures. Lear went upstairs, past the drawing room, and found:

My room – ehi! ehi! – Henry's – Mary's – Mother's, and the spare room. Down stairs again – the nursery, a large low room – just as it was – only with no view. Dear Ann's – & the painting room – the happiest of all my life perhaps – the 'dark room' and the 'play ground' ... Gave the woman 2 shillings – a cheap & wonderful lesson.

'No view'. In his childhood there had been views in every direction: west across flat fields to the slopes of Camden, north to Highgate, east to the market gardens, and south to the spires and smoke of the City. From the windows he could see lights glimmering in the dusk, lighting the roads to the river and the docks, filled with ships sailing to unknown lands.

When these smart Regency villas were built, Holloway was still a village on the Great North Road. One stagecoach a day went into town from the Plough Inn. Shepherds herded flocks down the street, and the remains of the old moated manor house could still be seen. A scattering of houses lined the road and the Lear children could walk up Highgate Hill or across into Hornsey Wood, where families came on trips to Eel-Pie House, with its pleasure grounds along the New River. Up the hill, Highgate had a new theatre, a library and smart monthly assemblies, and this was where the Lears felt they belonged – Lear always said he came from Highgate, rather than Holloway. By contrast Holloway was almost industrial. Near the end of Heames Lane Elizabeth Duke ran a manufactory 'wherein clothes and other articles were rendered water-proof', making cloaks and greatcoats for Wellington's army in the Peninsula.

Lear was born in the year of Wellington's victory at Salamanca and Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, when the fortunes of war seemed to turn. His first real memory, so he said, was of the end of the war. Writing to a friend in 1884, four years before he died, he said:

I think a great deal in these later days of all my life, every particle of which from the time I was 4 years old, I, strange to say, can perfectly remember. (Even earlier for I well remember being wrapped in a blanket & taken out of bed to see the illuminations in the house at Highgate, on the Battle of Waterloo occasion – and I was then, 1815, just 3 years and odd weeks.)

The Waterloo fireworks were a signal of joy. But within months the slump came. No troops needed waterproofs now, and trade collapsed at the Heames Lane manufactory. In 1816, the year without a summer, when the skies were black after the eruption of Mount Tambora in the East Indies, the streets were full of demobilised soldiers and sailors hunting for work. With a huge national debt to be paid, taxes rose, loans were called in, and investors stayed away. In the City great firms like Barings and men like Nathan Rothschild could make fortunes, but smaller brokers suffered. Jeremiah Lear was a defaulter, owing £2150 11s. 1d., his name called out loud to blows of a hammer on the wainscoting of the Exchange, and written on the blackboard for all to see. This was a ceremony 'so very awful' for the defaulter 'that he always takes care to be at a reasonable distance from the house on the occasion ... and dare not show his face in the house until he gets his affairs managed'. In this case, a friend settled the debt, with the creditors accepting 2s. 6d. in the pound. Jeremiah could show his face again.

For a time the Lears had to let their house. It seems that they packed their bags and trundled off to the family's old properties in the City, where the sugar houses smoked in the narrow streets by the quays. Their exile was not long: back they moved to leafy Holloway. Yet by 1820 the Lears were in trouble again. Lear once wrote bitterly of a local woman who might remember that his father was imprisoned 'for fraud and debt'. Exaggerated family stories talked of Jeremiah as a debtor in the King's Bench prison, of his wife carrying him six-course dinners in gaol, of the older girls becoming governesses and dying in distress. None of this was true. They kept afloat: Mrs Lear had some money, Frederick went to work as a Stock Exchange clerk and Henry briefly joined the army.

* * *

An image recurs in Lear's limericks of men feeding queues of hungry offspring: this is what Jeremiah managed to do, although the upheaval was too much for his wife, who clung to the mirage of a different life, the one they could have, should have, led.

There was an Old Man of Apulia,
During the turmoil of moving out and moving back four-year-old Edward was handed over to his eldest sister Ann, who was twenty-five in 1816. She may, indeed, have been responsible for him since he was born and she became, he always felt, his true mother. Ann and his other elder sisters played with him, read to him, and he learnt his letters with them, peering myopically at the alphabet books with their squares of letters illustrated by crude animals and birds – A is for Ass, C for Crow, Z for Zebra.

Ann was fun and liked to laugh, and, despite the family piety, for Lear as for all well-off children there were games and jokes, nursery rhymes to sing and books to read, like The Butterfly's Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast, written by the MP William Roscoe for his ten children, with every small page showing insects, animals and birds thronging to the feast. A host of small pleasures: birthday dinners of bacon and beans, and his sister Sarah teaching him to draw in the small parlour downstairs. But a year or so after their return, when Edward was five or six, it became clear that something was wrong. He had bronchitis and asthma, frightening for children who find themselves gasping, feeling that a monster is sitting on their chest. Worse still was the onset of some kind of fits – he remembered these clearly from the age of around five, but sometimes thought that they may have occurred earlier, even at one. These would last all his life, and he marked their onset and severity with 'X' in his diary. In his early fifties, mid-August 1866, after a bibulous dinner, Lear jotted down a grim 'XX 5', with a note, 'very unwell all night'. He rose late:

more or less stupefied all day. But, before I rose – reflected on days long gone – when I was but 8 – if so many years old. And this demon oppressed me then, I not knowing; its worry & misery. Every morning in the little study when learning my lessons – all day long: & always in the evening & at night. Nor could I have been more than 6 I think – for I remember whole years before I went to school – at 11.

The attacks were a form of epilepsy. Lear did not usually experience grand mal seizures, where the electric discharge affects the deep structure of the brain, bringing full-scale convulsions without warning. More often he had what are now called 'complex partial seizures', focal epilepsy affecting the temporal lobe, involved in processing memory, smell, taste, music and language. Sufferers experience a powerful 'aura', a wave of overwhelming dread, or a surging thrill of ecstatic joy, or a tremor of physical excitement. As this spreads, it can bring a rush of strange sensations, hallucinations of smell or taste, distortions of memory such as déjà vu or jamais vu, a sense of shrinking and expanding like Alice (Lewis Carroll was also a sufferer), of spinning through space, watching the self from above or dissolving in a storm of images. This state can be linked, too, to violent emotions, and – as for Lear – it can bring confusion, twitching and strange, jerky movements. Lear almost always felt the fits coming and could hide himself away. His bad times tended to come when he was tired or resting: the seizures lessened in adolescence then returned when he was about twenty and increased in force in later life, often arriving suddenly, marked by a swimming head and a feeling of nausea, '– & frightful dyspepsia – no relief till sudden X6. Then as usual deep sleep for 3/4 hr. more epileptic then and later.' He was quick to spot signs in others. Visiting one family he noted, 'breakfast & after that, came George W. the second son – they told me he had "fallen on the stove – or grate" – & his face was dreadful to see. I have an impression he may have had epileptic fits ... There is great sadness in this house, evidently.'


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Table of Contents

Prologue: 'It's Absurd …' 1

I Fledging

1 One Foot Off the Ground 9

2 With the Girls 21

3 'O Sussex!' 35

II Perching

4 To the Zoo 45

5 Knowsley 66

6 Tribes and Species 74

7 Make 'Em Laugh 84

8 Mountains 98

III Flying

9 'Rome Is Rome' 109

10 Happy as a Hedgehog 120

11 Third Person 131

12 Excursions 139

13 Derry down Derry: Nonsense, 1846 150

14 'Something Is About to Happen' 161

15 'Calmly, into the Dice-box' 175

16 'All that Amber' 189

IV Tumbling

17 The Brotherhood 201

18 Meeting the Poet 213

19 An Owl in the Desert 224

20 Half a Life: Corfu and Athos 234

21 Bible Lands 251

22 A Was an Ass 262

23 Home Again, Rome Again 270

24 No More 283

V Circling

25 'Overconstrained to Folly': Nonsense, 1861 297

26 'Mr Lear the Artist' 311

27 'From Island unto Island' 320

28 'What a Charming Life an Artist's Is!' 333

29 'The "Marriage" Phantasy' 341

30 'Gradually Extinguified' 352

VI Calling

31 Sail Away: Cannes, 1868-1869 375

32 'Three Groans for Corsica!' 388

33 Degli Inglesi 395

34 Nonsense Songs and More Nonsense 407

35 Restless in San Remo 424

36 India 435

37 Families 446

38 Laughable Lyrics 456

VII Swooping

39 Shocks 469

40 The Villa Tennyson 480

41 'As Great a Fool as Ever I Was' 494

42 Pax Vobiscum 513

Acknowledgements 523

List of Illustrations 525

Abbreviations 529

Select Bibliography 530

Notes 534

Index 583

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