Two hundred years ago today, one of the greatest inspirations of my life was born. Unlike Shakespeare, Dickens, Lewis Carroll and others whose celebrations grab the front pages of magazines and leave behind trails of shops, festivals and television programmes, Lear seems to go fairly unnoticed. Unfairly, not just because he was far more than a writer, but because in every art form he touched, which is pretty much every one imaginable, and in the almost unbelievably epic life he led, I feel he echoed the truths of human nature, emotion and fantasy more than anyone I’ve ever come across.
He’s hardly an unknown artist of course, his illustrations appear in cards in gift shops and his Owl and the Pussycat features pretty heavily in anthologies of the greatest ever poetry, well, at the least greatest ever British, comic or children’s poetry.
His limericks too, a form of poetry he didn’t invent but was the greatest ambassador for, are frequently reprinted but they’re often snobbishly criticized for not using the “proper” rhyming pattern, completely sidestepping the humour, depth and darkness that puts them a century ahead of the rest.
Lear’s main profession in life as an artist helped enrich these already great works with simple (much unlike his incredibly detailed works of animals) illustrations. Take the tale of the old man on some rocks… Who for some reason or other, shuts his wife up in a box for her to pass her whole life in. The verse is already bleak and to the point but the illustration pictures her smiling as she asks to be let out, tipping it over into a perfect lesson in dark humor.
My favourite Edward Lear poem, the Dong with A Luminous nose, a sequel to the mock seafaring-epic The Jumblies may be founded on the absurd concept of a figure crafting a giant, candle-lit nose to search for his lost love, but it reads like a genuine romantic epic of desperation and false hope. It’s like he set out writing a parody but latched onto such real feeling that it became bold, beautiful and heartbreakingly sad.
Though this darkness, truth and sadness pours through some of it, it’d be ridiculous to paint Lear’s work as not being, over everything, to-the-point, entertaining and at many times, laugh-out-loud hilarious. In his own life and beyond, Lear entertained and enriched the lives of young people and adults (one of his letters links the two ages by referencing academic topics in a brilliantly nonsensical attempt at not patronising a newborn baby).
A few weeks ago I went to the wonderful David Shrigley exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London. Prior to it I read an interview where the artist describes teachers at the Glasgow Art School not understanding his work and how he prefers the bookshops and cards to exhibiting in a gallery. Very similarly, and the artists’ work does share a lot of common ground, Lear’s nonsense work is best enjoyed when reading aloud in a group, flicking through it or remembering it with a giggle long after it has been read or seen. Even the layer of nonsense that abstracts it from real life actually brings it closer to our own lives through its absurdity. This, to me has a greater effect than most “serious” artwork.
In his nonsense botany, Lear creates absurd, yet strangely plausible plants (with fantastic illustrations) and gives them mock-scientific names like Manypeeplia Upsidownia. In his nonsense cookery (a personal favourite) he puts in enough sense to make the occasional impossible directions and ingredients strike out as perfectly timed punch lines, as funny now as ever, regardless of the era of cookery lessons they parody.
He wrote great stories too, The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipple-Popple may be incredibly silly but it’s also full of morals, forming a truthful portrait of the perils, or at least a fear of them, of children leaving home to the temptations of the outside world.
I first really got to know Lear’s nonsense writing I was a teenager scribbling constant (awful) poems in the back of my exercise books. I loved writing poetry but hated the false, thesaurus-heavy lines and the meanings you had to analyse to understand. Though you can, as many have, analyse Lear’s work, most of it, even the aspects that echo the dark points of his own life, are pretty clear. This directness and simplicity is partly why they appeal to me so much.
Though, like Shrigley, Lear’s work is found on cards, mugs and in comic books, he also appears in the Tate Britain, and galleries throughout the world as a great landscape artist of his time. To be honest, when I first saw these works, hunting them down excitedly and pining after the stunning intricacies of his animal illustrations or some of the characterization of his nonsense, I was very disappointed. Though well executed, I found them very boring.
It’s only after reading about Lear’s expeditions, adding journalist, explorer and travel writer to his list of pursuits, that I started to see the stories, the captured sense of wonder and the personality behind these works. These stories and accounts overlay onto the missing detail in the artwork, itself partially caused by Lear’s desire not to go blind by worsening damage done to his eyesight from the detailed drawings that he stated his career with.
If you want to see how Lear was not just an ordinary artist who achieved fame through something he did on the side (like Lewis Carroll’s human-side, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson being a fairly boring mathematician), you only need to look at these early drawings. A fantastic artist, who was chosen to teach Queen Victoria to draw, Lear’s animal drawings are not only brilliantly executed, but mirror as much of an animal’s personality in one picture as an entire modern nature documentary.
Though the masterworks of these nature documentaries forms a partial substitute, the type of animal illustration Lear specialized in is sadly a lost art-form. Separating himself from others in the trade, Lear disliked working from stuffed animals, and instead spent time with them in cages, aviaries and in the wild.
Take a photo of a bird, or even worse a sketch of a stuffed bird, and you get one moment in time. Sit in a cage with the bird and you learn its behavior, patterns, mood and can reflect those characteristics in paint and pencil.
Sometimes, being a master observer of human as well as animal life, Lear took a distraction away from the birds while in a cage.
One amazing illustration shows the outline of a bird but far more detailed caricatures of the Victorian ladies and gentlemen peering in. Like Lear looking out at them, they were obviously more intrigued by the strange bearded man residing on Zoological Society of London premises than by the tropical creature inside.
Today, everyone dabbles in art, music, writing, journalism and photography, with or without success or an aim for it. It isn’t however the fact of his travel writing, illustration, landscape painting, teaching, nonsense-writing, poem-writing, storytelling, music composition and more that makes Lear so great, or even the high quality of all of this work. For me, the moment when Lear jumped from being one of my favourite artists to my hero and inspiration was when I read more about the life behind the works, and how it tied everything (enough material for at least four separate biopics) together.
You could look at his personal life and see the man plagued by loneliness, bad health, bad eyesight, a horrible depression, frequent fits brought on by major epilepsy (at a time when it was seen as the work of the devil, masturbation and more) and the possible (though I hate the fact that it seems to be the main focus of any analysis) secret keeping of homosexuality. Although some of these struggles subtly echo through his work, they do not overshadow it, nor do they appear to have overshadowed Lear’s ability to entertain and inspire everyone he came into contact with during his life.
It’s easy to just break his life into sections and abilities and focus on each one as if it were a separate person but I feel this doesn’t do the man behind the work justice. There’s a wonderful story of a group sitting in a carriage discussing the authorship of the Book of Nonsense and how Lear was clearly the pseudonym of a Lord or other high ranking member of society. After impatiently sitting through as much of the life-cancelling discussion he can take, Lear jumps up from his seat, produces a handkerchief with his initials and proceeds to prove he exists.
Looking at his achievements, and I’ve only gone through a small portion, it’s easy to think them over-exaggerated. Look into his life however and you’ll find a clear drive towards all of them, threads between all his activities, a fantastic life of adventure and most of all a great person.
As I, like hundreds of others, write poems, lyrics, articles, music, draw pictures, make websites and try out all I can, I find great comfort in aiming for the goals set by a great multi-tasker who did everything he could to enrich his own life and those of others, but never left behind his singular personality in the process.
Despite being a massive fan, I’m obviously no expert on Lear’s life and apologise for any errors. Sadly, the greatest expert on this great man, Vivien Noakes, died last February. If you’re at all interested in Edward Lear I cannot recommend her book The Life of a Wanderer enough. A much earlier biography by Angus Davidson is also good.