Edward Lear

by Angus Davidson
[Dutton, $3.7,5]
EDWARD LEAR has waited fifty-one years for his biographer. In that half century his renown as a writer of nonsense verse, and to a lesser degree as a comic artist, has carried his name throughout the civilized world — if there is such a world. At the same time, his smaller reputation as a landscape artist has declined almost to the point of eclipse. The reconstruction of the life of this lonely man. in whom inward melancholy and the tyranny of disease were only equaled by his gift for friendship and wit, gives his readers a new definition of his abilities and humanity, and the first full view of as interesting a person as ever lived. It makes one of the few enchanting hooks of the year, and deserves the reception of the Book of Nonsense itself.
Everybody knows the name of Lear. Even children, whose fashions in books have changed since that day from Lear to Leaf, are still aware of his primary nonsense. But few people realize that he was a landscape artist by profession. His gift was delicate, precise. English in tradition, meticulous in detail, ‘essentially literary and descriptive,’ and in the last period haunted with the sadness of space and distance.
The book is illustrated - amply as to comic drawings, but it lacks among the water colors an example of Lear’s figured landscapes, wherein for me his charm is at its best. It is clear now that he clung to art deliberately, as a means of livelihood. He worked with ‘ceaseless, almost automatic industry,’ rising at half-past four in the morning, writing thirty-five letters before breakfast if he wasn’t painting, painting all day and often through the evening. ‘Looking at pictures wearies me always.’ he wrote. “It is quite hard workenough to try and make them.’ Once, in Italy or somewhere, he overheard a remark about him in which he took great delight: ‘Why, he’s nothing but a d-d dirty landscape-painter.’ It became a kind of professional title: ‘Edward Lear, Dirty Landscape-painter.’
Children loved him, for indeed he was always something of a child himself. If he painted quantities of pictures — his friend Lushington inherited over 10,000 water colors, a comment on Lear’s poor faculty of self-criticism he also wrote hundreds of letters. They are full of his own engaging phonetics: ‘rox, oax, phiggs. Adopt y Duuele, 1/2-starved. troppiele seen, Mrs. Beecher’s Toe.’ Mr. Davidson has drawn on Lady Strachey ‘s neglected two volumes of correspondence as well as on new material; but he does not praise Lear sufficiently as one of the absolute masters of this now lost art.
He was a queer figure, bearded and spectacled, with the shoulders of Odysseus — frequently taken for Wilkie Collins and once arrested near Aquila as Lord Palmerston. He composed and published musical settings of some of Tennyson’s poems. It is a minor tragedy that his own music to ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ is lost to posterity. It is a major benefit that this book has been written.
How pleasant to know, Mr. Lear!