Edward Lear and the Classics

It is well know that Edward Lear did not have a formal education, a fact that he apparently did not consider a limitation as he thought that it had left him with a curiosity to know new things that lacked in many people educated at the best universities. He certainly did not have a university-level education in the classical languages, but he very probably read a number of classical works in translation or, as a child, summaries of many. The theme has been extensively treated by Marian W. Makins in a recent essay, “Latin, Greek, and Other Classical ‘Nonsense’ in the Work of Edward Lear.” Classical Reception and Children’s Literature: Greece, Rome and Childhood Transformation. Eds. Hodkinson, Owen and Helen Lovatt. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2018. 203-25.

While discussing “The Tragical Life and Death of Caius Marius,” probably in large part based on Plutarch, Makins, p. 222 note 12, notices  that pictures 15 to 18 appear to be based on Oliver Goldsmith’s The Roman History, from the Foundation of the City of Rome to the Destruction of the Western Empire. Abridged for the Use of Schools, London: J. Williams, 1781, pp. 117-118. A book Lear had perhaps read as a young boy, or was reading with the child of a friend. After checking the text here is what I think she found corresponding to Goldsmith’s version:

Goldsmith writes, p. 117: “In this distress he was obliged to conceal himself in the marshes of Minturnum, where he spent the night up to his chin a quagmire.” The part which does not appear in Plutarch is “up to his chin.”

Goldsmith, p. 117: “being known and discovered by some of the inhabitants, he was conducted to a neighbouring town with an halter round his neck, without cloaths, and, covered with mud, was sent to prison,” and “The Governor of the place… soon after sent a Cimbrian slave to dispatch him; but the barbarian no sooner entered the dungeon for this purpose, but he stopt short intimidated by the dreadful visage and awful voice of the fallen general, …” The “halter” is not mentioned in Plutarch, nor is the man going to kill Marius defined as a “slave” and he offers to go, is not “sent.”

Goldsmith, p. 118: “”He afterwards landed in Africa, near Carthage, and went, in a melancholy manner, to place himself amongst the ruins of that desolated place”

Makins, however, misses, or chooses not to discuss another interesting classical reference by Lear in one of the two sequels to “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” he wrote. Published in the Complete Verse edited by Vivien Noakes, pp. 450-541, in “The Later History of the Owl and the Pussy-cat”, the cat dies after swallowing, “in a rage,” a document that “if found upon them the discovery would insuredly lead to acrostic results,” after her husband, the owl, refused to do so. Before falling off a tree and “perspiring,” the Pussy-cat manages to say: “My Pœtus! it is not painful.” This is an obvious reference to the story –  told by Pliny, Tacitus, Cassius Dio and Martial –  of Aulus Caecina Paetus, condemned to death for his participation in the revolt of Lucius Camillus Scribonianus; given the opportunity to kill himself, he wavered, but his wife Arria stabbed herself and then gave him the dagger saying: “Non dolet, Paete!” the exact words Lear reports in the letter and in the accompanying picuture.

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Edward Lear and Thomas Rowlandson

Edward Lear’s picture stories are apparently “hinnocent” throwaway pieces, produced on the spur of the moment to entertain his friends or their children. In previous posts I have shown the sources for some of the stories on Irish subjects (here, here and here), but even the most apparently occasional ones show Lear’s profound immersion in the visual and narrative culture of his youth.

While the Irish works were explicitly presented as derivative illustrations of existing poems or stories, Lear’s later strips seem to be pure and simple humorous narratives of events that occurred during his more or less adventurous journeys. This, according to a recent book by Daniele Barbieri (Letteratura a fumetti?, 2019) is an essential passage in the creation of modern graphic narrative: while ancient and medieval images told stories that were already know by their consumers or required explanations by people, such as preachers, who knew and interpreted the story for the illiterate “‘readers,” it is only with Hogarth and his many English followers that it became possible to tell, or rather draw a story independent of religious or historical sources that could explain it.

The examples below show how, even when telling an original, personal story, Lear could not avoid being strongly influenced by the long tradition of English caricature, and most of all by Thomas Rowlandson’s many series of prints devoted to horse riding, while at the same time using such well-known images to tell an original story.

Many of these examples are taken from Matthew Bevis’s lecture, Edward Lear’s Vision.







All images from Edward Lear’s picture story are ©Trustees of the British Museum.

The whole “Edward Lear Learns to Ride a Horse.”

See also.

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Calendaria Botanica Ridiculoso

Among the many merits of Sara Lodge’s Inventing Edward Lear is the identification of Marie Duval as the author of a previously unattributed book, Calendaria Botanica Ridiculoso (first edition 1877). More on Duval.

Lodge writes (p. 212):

Lear’s ideas gave rise in turn to other nonsense botanies. Marie Duval, the actress and cartoonist, published in 1877 a Calendaria Botanica Ridiculoso. The botany has not previously been attributed, but its similarities to her other nonsense [in particular A Rare and Choice Collection of Queens & Kings, and other things] make its authorship transparent. Her reimagining of nonsense botany has a distinctly female viewpoint…

I have at last managed to get a copy and have posted the whole book in a gallery at nonsenselit.org. Here are smaller pictures for the lazy:

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Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh and 2nd Marquess of Londonderry (1769-1822). Better known as Viscount Castlereagh. As Chief Secretary for Ireland (1798-1801) was instrumental in the passage of the Act of Union in 1800, but his attempt to achieve subsequent political emancipation of Roman Catholics was unsuccessful. Pictured with ass’s ears and the motto Eiren-go-bray [Ireland Forever].

From Don Juan Asmodeus, A Political Lecture on Heads, alias Blockheads!! A Characteristic Poem: Containing the Heads of Derry Down Triangle, the State Jackal … [etc.] Drawn from Craniological Inspection, after the Manner of Doctors Gall and Spurzheim, of Vienna (London: J. Fairburn [1818?]). Graphic Arts Collection Cruik 1815.5.

Below is the frontispiece fold out by George Cruikshank, in which Castlereagh is called Derry-Down-Triangle:

Here for further details of the book.

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Edward Lear, Plain below Mt Ithome (1849)

Edward Lear, Plain below Mt Ithome, 4p.m. 21 March 1849.
Inscribed and dated in ink and pencil. 10.25 x 16.5in.

The Saleroom.

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Edward Lear, Roman Catholic Cemetery at Palaiopolis, Kaligoni Greece (1863)

Edward Lear, Roman Catholic Cemetery at Palaiopolis, Kaligoni Greece.
Watercolour over traces of ink, inscribed and dated 23 April 1863 5.30pm, 13.5×23.5cm.

The British Council, Fine Arts Department, catalogue no. 42
Sotheby’s 14th December 2017, lot 29, according to labels attached to the reverse of the frame.

The Saleroom.

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Edward Lear, Tor Sant’Eusebio (1845)

Edward Lear, Tor Saint Eusebio.
Titled and dated 13th February 1845. Pen, ink and watercolour on buff paper. 11.5 x 39.5cm; 4½ x 15½in.

The Saleroom.

There are two more pictures of the same subject with the same date at Houghton: 1, 2.

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