Review of an Edward Lear Exhibition, from The Tablet (1958)

Edward Lear

IT is not only since the advent of Punch that Englishmen have claimed a sense of humour as their monopoly. As long ago as 1673 the Earl of Peterborough wrote of the Duchess of  Modena: “She is really an extraordinary woman, has a great deal of witt and sperritt, and I believe wants not humour if she were in a place where it was the custome.” But the form of humour which depends largely on a combination of puns, phonetic spelling, portmanteau words, cockneyisms, superfluous aspirates and verbal distortions such as “aperiently” for “apparently” was a Victorian phenomenon which dies hard in certain secluded patrician circles.

Edward Lear was not impervious to the fashions of his time nor, perhaps, to the echoes of Rabelais and Swift but the collection of his paintings, drawings, books, prints and manuscripts (which the Arts Council has brought from the Aldeburgh Festival to St. James’s Square) reminds us that his nonsense drawings must have been the prototype of Mr. James Thurber’s and that some of his sentences could easily get lost in Finnegans Wake. As a coiner of words he was more prolific and inventive than Lewis Carroll, and many of his verbal aberrations have a surrealist logic which is exclusively his own. Nonsense was officially a sideline to his chosen occupations of book illustration and landscape painting, in the pursuit of which he travelled extensively. His journeys were no doubt an escape from a form of agoraphobia (though he was not unsociable and had many friends) and a justification for his restless temperament: just as his nonsense was a safety-valve through which escaped much of his irritation with his rather ludicrous appearance (long or large noses and beards are always appearing in the rhymes) his chronic ill-health (he was an asthmatic and suffered from mild epilepsy) and his lack of funds. He was never really poor but, in spite of the friendship of rich patrons, he was continually worried by the insecurity of having no fixed income. Brought up by women, he was conscious of a certain lack of virility. He never married, though after the death of the sister who was largely responsible for his upbringing he often brooded about taking a wife. He refers in middle age to a “nice fat Greek girl” and it is difficult not to identify him with the Yonghy Bonghy Bó and Augusta Bethell, Lord Westbury’s daughter, with the Lady Jingly Jones. Like Lewis Carroll, he seems to have been only on friendly terms with women.

The longer poems seem to me his most memorable works. They often have a lyrical pathos that sets them apart from the limericks which I have never liked, partly because of their hint of childish cruelty (so many of his characters come to sticky ends) and partly because the last line invariably provides an anticlimax. Exceptions may be made for the Old Man of Thermopylae who never did anything properly and for the Young Person of Crete whose toilette (a sack) was far from complete. The illustrations to the limericks are on another level, and I was sorry not to find in the exhibition the Old Man of Blackheath and the Young Person of Bantry. Several of the more celebrated poems may, however, be examined in manuscript, including the “Owl and the Pussy-cat” (differing slightly from the published version) and “The Pobble who has no toes” (also with variations). I would have liked to see more of the nonsense receipts and botany (though Manypeeplia Upsidownia is there) but room had to be found for the journals, landscapes and illustrations of birds and animals.
The oil paintings are not impressive, though some of the drawings and water-colours are of unusual interest. Queer shapes, whether real or invented, fascinated Lear, and in this respect he occasionally looks forward to Wyndham Lewis. More often (as in No. 25) he derives from Towne and other eighteenth century votaries of the picturesque. An original note can be detected in such exhibits as Nos. 18, 19, 21, 42 and 59. In the lithograph numbered 97 he has suggested the markings on a tortoiseshell by scraping black paint off the stone—a technique which was not commonplace in the 1830’s. The zoological illustrations are careful and sensitive and loving and competent but not unique of their kind.

Perhaps it is as a personality that we should remember him — the Compleat Eccentric in an age of eccentrics, everybody’s uncle and the most cheerful of grumblers. We can forgive him his exasperation at the number of conversions to Rome and at Cardinal Manning’s “atrocious sermons . . . to which nevertheless, all heaps of fools go.”


The Tablet. The International Catholic News Weekly. Vol. 212, No. 6164. 12 July 1958, p. 8. [Available online here.]

[The exhibition reviewed here had originally been at The Eleventh Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts, 12-22 June 1958; a Complete Programme Book. 95[3]pp., was printed by Benham and Company in Colchester, 1958.

The number cited at the end of the article presumably refer to the catalogue: Edward Lear, 1812-1888; an exhibition of oil paintings, water-colours and drawings, books and prints, manuscripts, photographs and records. 64pp. London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1958. Marco.]

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