Mr Lear, A Life of Art and Nonsense
Faber & Faber, £25.00 (hardback)
Edward Lear (1812–1888) is mostly known for his nonsense poetry and prose, but he was also a talented natural history painter and illustrator.
In this scholarly and entertaining work, Jenny Uglow makes Lear jump off the page for us. An epic read at 590 pages, it is full of illuminating details and anecdotes, illustrated throughout with Lear's sketches, paintings and nonsense verse.
One of 21 children, Lear developed his first artistic skills at home, making meticulous botanical drawings with his sisters. At 18, we find him at London Zoo, invited to sketch the parrots, and at 23 he is painting birds and small mammals at Lord Derby's menagerie and aviary at Knowsley. Uglow underlines how important his careful drawings were in advancing knowledge at that time.
The author shows us Lear in all his modes as naturalist painter, landscape artist, travel writer, comic poet and even musician, for which he was much in demand. But mostly he spent his time alone in order to draw and paint, turning down invitations. We follow him as he sketches landscapes and pelicans in Albania, for instance, living rough in barns. In the breaks from work, he would write limericks and make comic sketches.
Details such as his craving for affection are revealed to us as the author describes Lear's close friendships and also his battle against illness. However, he always found that work was the answer, and he continued to strive for improvement throughout his life, at one time being taught by William Holman Hunt.
This is an invigorating and enjoyable read for those who wish to comprehend the breadth of this brilliant man's work and his complex personality.
- The Biologist will be looking at Lear's natural history paintings in more detail in the next issue