Edward Lear and George Grove

One of the most famous of Edward Lear’s self caricatures is certainly the one in which he portrays himself while looking straight into the eyes of a strange “bug,” which is itself gazing at him. I had never cared to check where the image came from, but today, while doing some reasearch for the Diaries project, I found it illustrated a letter Lear sent to George Grove, immortalised in the title of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians.


Lear was first introduced to Grove by William Holman Hunt on 14 November 1859 and, from the confidential tone of the letter below, a friendship was formed, probably based on the interest in the East the two men shared. The letter also makes clear that the “bug” is actually a toadstool.

Here is the relevant passage, including the nonsense-rich letter, from Graves’s 1903 biography of Grove:

On his return to Sydenham, Grove was at once engaged in the preparations for the Flower Show, held at the Crystal Palace on September 20th {1860}, when he was specially attracted by the Gladiolus exhibit. Next day he remarks in his note-book that “the round hills about Caterham struck me as not unlike Benjamin. For the smooth rocklike flagstones see the East Hill at Hastings half way up,” and the possibility of his paying a second visit to Jerusalem is mentioned in a letter written a month later to his friend, Mr. Bergheim. Entries in his note-books prove him to have already begun to take an interest in the music of Schubert — who afterwards became “his existence” — while a further proof of his Solomon-like versatility is shown by a sudden desire to collect toadstools, evidence of which is forthcoming in the following highly characteristic illustrated letter from Edward Lear, the artist and humorist, to whom he had been attracted by their common interest in the East:

“Oatlands Park Hotel,
“Walton On Temms, Surrey,
“15 Nov. 1860.

“Dear Grove

“I Hasten to inform you that in a wood very near here, there are Toadstools of the loveliest and most surprising colour and form:— orbicular, cubicular and squambingular, and I even thought I perceived the very rare Pongchambinnibophilos Kakokreasopheros among others a few days back. You have therefore nothing better to do than to come with Penrose and hunt up and down St. George’s Hill for the better carrying out of the useful and beastly branch of science you have felt it your duty to follow. Provided also that you bring your own cooking utensils you may dine off your gatherings though I won’t partake of the feast, my stomach being delicate.

“Seriously, however, I should indeed like to see both F. Penrose and yourself here:— couldn’t you send a line first, and come over to luncheon? though it would be far better if you came and dined and slept and then toadstooled all the next day—back to Sydenham or as you pleased. Saturdays and Sundays are my only insecure days, but those are the days also you would be least likely to think of coming. Daddy [i.e. Holman] Hunt writes to me that he is coming soon:— it would be very nice if we could all combine.

“Besides the seedars — you would see 11 other unfinished vorx of art—not to speak of a good many sketches. My life passes daily in a different place, Lebanon, Masada, the Tiber, — the Cervara Quarries, — Philates, Zagori, — Philae, — S. Sabbas, — Damascus, Bethlehem, Beirut, and Interlaken. But I confess that a little more society would sometimes be pleasant — for painting, Greek, music, reading and penning drawings are all used up by the end of the day. Various friends, however, write and come — so I don’t complain.

“If you let me know — shall I send out and gather toadstools in hampers for you? You can sit and pick them in the large hall.

“O ! that I could get back to Jerusalem this spring !

” Edward Lear.”

Graves, Charles Larcom. The life & letters of Sir George Grove, Hon. D.C.L. (Durham), Hon. LL.D. (Glasgow), formerly Director of the Royal College of Music. London: Macmillan, 1903, pp. 79-81. (Google Books)

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