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The Biographical Animal

Benjamin Westwood

Jenny Uglow
Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense
Faber & Faber






Humans have often been thought of as the autobiographical animal. But, impelled to draft, revise, and reshape the major scenes of our life stories, it is sometimes hard to piece them together in a way to make a coherent whole. In Mr Lear, Jenny Uglow writes the life of a man who lived several different lives simultaneously: old Derry down Derry, the beloved author of nonsense; Edward Lear the accomplished landscape painter and zoological illustrator; and Lear the traveller “in many lands”, as it reads on his headstone. In doing so, she gives us a generous study not only of an eccentrically central Victorian poet and artist, but of the ways in which “A Life” of anyone always involves multiple incarnations of the one person. The title line of Lear’s late poem, “How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear,” rings true throughout this generous and sympathetic portrait, but it might also prompt us to ask: which one?

We best know Lear now as the writer of “The Owl and the Pussycat”, and the populariser of the limerick form, but it was always his lasting aspiration to be considered a first-rate landscape painter. Though he was able to make a living from his art, it never garnered the recognition he felt—probably justly—that it deserved. His vast 1862 oil painting of the Cedars of Lebanon, for instance, was priced initially at £735; it was sold five years later for two hundred guineas. Both Uglow and Vivien Noakes in her till-now-definitive Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer give ample space to Lear’s paintings. And, strange as it sometimes is to look back on his single-minded pursuit of recognition as a painter rather than a writer of “bosh and nonsense”, the beautiful inset colour reproductions of Lear’s paintings dotted generously throughout Mr Lear help bear out Uglow’s enthusiasm for the landscapes.

The difficulties in selling works like Cedars didn’t obstruct the extraordinary fecundity of his artistic production; from showpiece oils, to watercolour reproductions of larger landscapes available for £10, woodcut engravings for his six published travel books, and endless sketches on scraps of paper and correspondence, Uglow highlights to what extent Lear saw life, and particularly the natural world, through the eyes of a painter. His dearest project, unfinished at his death, was a book containing a series of landscape illustrations of Tennyson’s poems. He was struck, he said in a letter to the Laureate’s wife, Emily, by “his genius for the perception of the beautiful in Landscape.”

As Uglow describes it, this was a project interested in translating into a visual register “Tennyson’s mood pictures in sound”, and Lear’s choice of “suggestive” lines from the poems—“Hateful is the dark blue sky”, “The lonely moated grange”, “A huge crag platform”—tell us much about the kinds of mood to which Lear himself was prone. His diaries reveal an insular, deeply self-conscious and self-critical man, as well as a very funny one. Assailed by the draining egotism of the depressive, even the most social of occasions like visits to the Tennyson home at Farringford recoiled into self-recriminations and admonitions:

AT was in one of his irritating small=captions moods. I believe no other woman in all this world could live with him for a month. […] ― It always wrings me to leave Farringford ― yet I doubt ― as once before ― if I can go again. I suppose it is the Anomaly of high souls & philosophic writings combined with slovenliness, selfishness, & morbid folly that prevents my being happy there: ― perhaps also ― vexation at myself for not being more so. (17 October 1864)

The combination of the “morbids”, as he called the frequent and intense low moods from which he suffered, and his punishing self-chastisement creates a double vision in his life and art. The former, along with the epileptic fits to which he was subject since childhood, prompted an intermittent desire to isolate himself, to sequester himself away and out of sight, as he suggests above in doubting “if [he] can go again” to Farringford. But the “vexation at myself”, a manifestation of a frequent impulse to self-criticism, places Lear himself squarely in the limelight of a given scene. This ambivalence finds its way into his work, in characters and compositions which tend now to highlight the presence of their author, now to displace or disguise him.

Lear’s lifelong interest in other animals was one of the most frequent means of this displacement from, and projection into, his own work. Birds in particular were a recurrent means of imaginative escape for Lear, and the seven sections into which Uglow separates her book acknowledge this: “Fledging”, “Perching”, “Flying”, “Tumbling”, “Circling”, “Calling”, and “Swooping”. As these suggest, she is closely attuned to Lear’s zoological enthusiasm. Before his emergence as “Old Derry down Derry”, Lear worked as a zoological draughtsman, contributing illustrations to volumes by the prominent naturalist John Gould, and Charles Darwin’s Journal of Researches from the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, among others. His early solo venture, Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots (begun when he was eighteen), was pioneering in its focus on a single species, and remains a considerable aesthetic and scientific achievement to this day. Alongside Robert McCracken Peck’s recent study of The Natural History of Edward Lear, Uglow’s work presents valuable new biographical and historical detail from this important part of the artist’s life.

From this early work as an illustrator of natural history to the late poems and limericks, Lear found in other creatures both solace and stimulation; perhaps, Uglow suggests, in the recognition that the “human world […] was quite as bizarre and protean as the animal”. In the natural world, Lear saw different aspects of human life mirrored back to him. But he also recognised a challenge to human exceptionalism: “As he drew and painted the animals and birds and reptiles,” notes Uglow, “Lear was not so sure about man’s assumed dominion”. Writing and drawing animals, in other words, was a way of writing about himself and other humans—and a way of sublimating them.

Differences between “the animal” and “the human” weren’t always as clear-cut as these observations suggest, though, in large part because individuals transform so regularly in the nonsense into other kinds of creature. Like the shape-shifting characters in his limericks, Lear’s letters metamorphose him into snails and swifts, and on one occasion the Archbishop of Canterbury (his beloved cat Foss in tow). Coming across these moments, it’s hard not to be reminded of characters like the “Old Man of El Hums”, who lived on “crumbs, | Which he picked off the ground, with the other birds round,” doubling the pose and appearance of his feathery messmates. This habit of mimicry runs through Lear’s writing and illustrations—a kind of contagious aesthetic—and Lear’s creatures mirror each other in ways which make it hard to say precisely where lie the differences and similarities between human and animal, original and copy, real and nonsense. [2]

Even the more absurd characters in the nonsense come to seem a lot like Lear. “The Dong with the Luminous Nose”, for instance, or the “Man on whose nose, / All the birds of the air could repose,” pick up neurotically on Lear’s own peculiar self-consciousness about his “remarkably big” nose (as he puts it in “How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear”). And in the late, poignant “Some Incidents in the Life of my Uncle Arly”, Lear smuggles himself—literally—into the poem (uncLE ARly), as readers have long noted. Lear always put a lot of himself into his correspondence too, and, especially as he got older, his letters increasingly figure pen-and-ink caricatures of the “globular foolish Topographer”, chatting amiably with a pair of frogs or settled peaceably with a hen up a tall tree.

Lear said famously in 1871 that he worked carefully to create works that were “perfectly clear & bright, & incapable of any meaning but one of sheer nonsense”. Mr Lear, however, like Noakes’s work before, works with equal care to show how such clarity and brightness served as much to screen the writer as it did to reveal the poems themselves. The ludicrous luminosity of the Dong’s prosthetic proboscis, for instance, both insists on a correspondence with Lear’s own features and covers it up with hyperbole. Likewise the “Old Man with a beard,” who finds that “Two Owls and a Hen, | Four Larks and a Wren, | Have all built their nests in my beard.” These exaggerations discover the presence of Lear in a single detail, even as they also distort him. Caricatures, in emphasising the most telling trait of an individual, risk obscuring the whole; and costumes like the Archbishop’s surplice are a form of disguise. The creatures in the limericks bursting in through the front door with spectacles, improbably large noses, and bird’s-nest beards were sometimes a cover for Lear himself to slip out of view.

The limericks frequently show individuals in the act of escaping—leaping out windows, down cracks, or flying off into the air:

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.

As ever with the limericks, the adjective in the final line means everything and nothing. “Incipient” recalls Charles Darwin’s coining of “incipient species”—marked variations which would, eventually, become distinct enough to be classified as separate species. The Old Man, then, is in the process of transforming, but into what? The expression of manic delight on his face in the accompanying illustration, on the other hand, suggests that falling may well be the point; not so much metamorphosis as extinction.

It almost reads like a prequel to a letter Lear sent to George Scrivens in 1866, in which, mortified at troubling Scrivens over a misplaced book, he commits “sukycide by throwing hisself out of a 5 pair of stairs winder.” One of the possible “incipient” transformations of the “Old Man” might then be into Lear himself. Uglow suggests that Lear wrote “poems that hid the writer […] in thickets of words and images”, but it’s truer to say that they both hid and revealed—often at the same time. In a way, the Old Man at the casement is the subject her biography helps us to get to know: poised at the window in disguise, ready either to reveal himself or fling himself out of it.

His work as a landscape painter, on the other hand, offered a chance to remove people altogether. This no doubt appealed to an artist who felt keenly a perceived lack of proficiency in rendering human figures; the sublime lines of a rock-face he could get to grips with, but human faces were much harder to master. For Lear the landscape artist, his paintings were, in a sense, a way of revealing something about himself to a wider audience without having to appear in person. But there was also a sense that with this depopulation there was something missing from the works: he posited in a letter that “to master [the human figure] alone would enable me to carry out the views & feelings of landscape I know to exist within me”.

The elegant solution to this doubleness offered by Uglow is to present her subject as a life in art and nonsense, and not just of it. Nonsense and art were the mediums in which Lear moved, rather than simply occupations; the productions of the former, in particular, were responses to life and its peculiarities, rather than imitations of it.

Chapters following the formative years Lear spent visiting friends and future patrons in stately country seats, for instance—especially the Earl of Derby’s famous menagerie at Knowsley—show how much of the early nonsense springs from the overlapping oddities of aristocratic homes and their routines, classificatory science, and the Noah’s Ark of creatures wandering around Knowsley’s parks. Who could fail to find life ticklish when Lords and Ladies went side by side with animals like the Eyebrowed Rollulus or the Whiskered Yarke?

Uglow probes the extent to which Lear’s life is legible through or in his art and nonsense with a discerning pressure. Like the poems and pictures Uglow reads so well, her book itself is coy, even in its title, about the balance of separation and connection between “Mr Lear” and “A Life of Art and Nonsense.” Are we looking at one life or two? Or three (“art and nonsense”)? Like any life, of course, the answer is never singular. But, in so nakedly appearing in his own work only to vanish in a puff of feathers, the self-proclaimed “Arch-nonsense-chatter-maker” provides a peculiarly plural case for the biographer. (Not least because Lear’s work reveals the man himself to be an inveterate biographer-in-miniature: think only of his limericks, which, in focusing on individuals and giving us their home-town or a distinctive trait, are idiosyncratic little lives, squeezed into a repetitious envelope.)

In a brilliant recent essay entitled “Lear and the Fool”, James Williams has pointed out that it was a source of regular amusement to Lear that his famous Shakespearean namesake intermittently shambled into view, both precursor to, and co-star in, the painter’s life. But it’s another fictional character who most comes to mind in reading Mr Lear.

When David Copperfield wonders “[w]hether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life”, at the start of his narrative, we might hear in it an epigraph to Lear’s “life of art and nonsense.” One of the answers Victorian fiction usually found to this question was essentially unavailable to Lear: unlike Dickens’s own autobiographical avatar, Lear never married, despite an “obsession with th[e] idea” of matrimony in the mid-1860s. And no other biography has spoken as directly and tactfully about his homosexuality as this one. The lack of a partner with which to share his life saddened Lear; and, among the vibrant life populating his work, throughout his diary and correspondence there is often a sense of lives not lived, the possibility that he was failing to keep pace with a story that had already been plotted. Uglow brings this out movingly.

But “hero” might be the wrong word here, relying as it does on conventions with which Lear was familiar (he was a voracious reader of contemporary fiction), but which seem alien to the poetic and aesthetic grammar of his work. The play of projection and self-effacement in his art and nonsense would hardly have moved Thomas Carlyle to raptures. But it is one of the subtle strengths of this biography that it pictures Lear as both eccentric to the traditional story of the age, and immersed in its cultural and political life. It is impossible to imagine the age without him, but he also floats curiously free of it. Mr Lear places its subject in a rich historical context without losing sight of individual idiosyncrasies, and represents the new standard biography of an enigmatic and significant figure of the Victorian era.


Benjamin Westwood [3] is a Departmental Lecturer in English, based at Keble College.