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The Restless Eye: Edward Lear at the Ashmolean

Rosie Lavan

Edward Lear
Happy Birthday Edward Lear: 200 Years of Nature and Nonsense
20 September 2012 — 7 January 2013
Ashmolean Museum





Remarkably, Edward Lear was the twentieth of twenty-one children. The current exhibition at the Ashmolean, Happy Birthday Edward Lear: 200 Years of Nature and Nonsense, is dedicated to recovering those remarkable aspects of his life and career which have been somewhat eclipsed by the owl, the pussycat, and the crumpetty tree. It is a fascinating, sensitively curated exhibition which grants a window onto an artistic imagination that was both of its time and entirely singular.

Born in 1812, Lear was a self-taught artist. He began to draw at the age of 15 and developed an interest, and a great talent, for ornithological studies. It is with these beautiful pictures of startling verisimilitude that the exhibition begins. Two small watercolours of feathers are the first pictures on display. One was presumably made for promotional purposes because the feather is gently resting on a business card that gives his Gray’s Inn Road address, but the card, notably, looks far more drawn than the delicate black and white feather.

His attentiveness to minute detail is no less sharp on a larger scale: his richly coloured parrots and flamingos are faultless right down to the feet. These illustrations are of course expressive of the Victorian interest in natural history and the desire to collect and order and codify the world. But at the same time we see in these works, many of which were commissions for major volumes on natural history, the first stirrings of the absurd which he later allowed to dominate his comic drawings. In the pug face of the horseshoe bat (1832) Lear seems to have invested a wry, underimpressed personality. His preparatory watercolour of a great auk (1831) for a plate included in Prideaux Selby’s Illustrations of British Ornithology is more unwittingly ridiculous: in this trial piece, Lear has drawn and painted the auk, but in the top right-hand corner of the sheet he has drawn the bird’s head again, but much larger, so that the endearingly comic penguin-esque profile shadows itself from above. He must have found these things funny, too: later, he would invent nonsense species and devise for them mock-Latin names.

The only thing that lets the exhibition down is the nature of the space in which these natural history pictures are hung—it is not immediately clear as you work your way around this small corner gallery that there is more to come on the other side of one of the Ashmolean’s internal bridges that take you across the collections beneath. It is in this other, much larger room that the complexity of Lear’s personality starts to become clear. Here his extensive work as a landscape artist is on display. The places depicted are mainly warm—Rome, Corsica, Corfu, Athens, Jerusalem, Gaza, Malabar in India, Philae in Egypt. These travels were undertaken sometimes on commissions, often to relieve his ill-health. Lear suffered from epilepsy from early childhood, and for much of his life he was depressed and lonely. The curators communicate these features of an often unhappy life with perceptively chosen extracts from his diaries and letters. “I HATE LIFE unless I WORK always,” he once said, an emphatic statement that accounts rather tragically for his tremendous productivity. Other quotations indicate that he often felt uneasy or got at. In Olevano in Italy in the late 1830s he described how the “annoying” local children “surround you by the dozen when you sketch”. In Hebron in the late 1850s he remembered people throwing stones at him as he worked. Most poignantly, in the central case which contains sketches and letters with comic drawings and verses, there is the “Exact likeness of me & my cat Foss”, a little ink sketch of Lear as he rendered himself—a round body atop long thin legs and bent forward on a walking stick; bald head and beard; and proto-Lennon spectacles—with the cat happily at his feet. Foss was his constant companion from 1872. The cat died 15 years later, only two months before Lear himself.

The wayfaring Lear travelled to remember. He took the art of noticing to the point of obsession: “By degrees I want to topographize and typographize all the journeying of my life,” he wrote. The landscape work on show here is, by and large, comprised of preparatory sketches he made in these many locations and heavily annotated so that when he came to do the finished oil paintings of these scenes he would remember the details exactly. These pencil notes, layered above the drawings, were meant to help Lear recapture all he had seen: the blue of the sky above the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, for example, or the rough surface of the ground on a hill above Constantinople. He has marked the date and time of his drawing on almost all of these sketches.

Lear never intended these pieces which the Ashmolean have brilliantly assembled to be seen by anyone else. And yet, actually, they are more impressive and more compelling than the oil paintings which became of them. A few of these are on display, too. In some, “Jerusalem” (1865), for example, there is a Holman Hunt-esque quality to the depiction of light and landscape, while his intention with “Beachy Head” (1862) was to render the scene “in its coldest and uncomfortliest phase”. The paintings are impressive, and technically excellent, but next to the far more vital, lively sketches, which speak through their hasty pencil annotations and tell us not only what Lear saw but the very hour at which he saw it, their glossy, finished surfaces are unsatisfying.

Happy Birthday Edward Lear offers a complete portrait of the man. It reasserts a sense of the plurality of his achievements during his lifetime. Lear was the artist chosen by Queen Victoria in 1846 to give her drawing lessons. Tennyson, of whose poetry he produced an illustrated edition, wrote of Lear’s work: “Tomohrit, Athos, all things fair, / With such a pencil, such a pen, / You shadow forth to distant men, / I read and felt that I was there.” And he was wildly successful commercially: A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear went through 19 editions before he died in 1888. But what the exhibition also does, no less importantly, is delicately remind us that while his eye took in these rich and varied scenes and subjects from the natural world, and while his imagination spelt itself out in crazy brilliance, this man who shared his name with Shakespeare’s sad king was conscious always of a keen sadness in himself.

Rosie Lavan is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.