H. Hawthorne, Edward Lear (1916)

“Dear For His Many Gifts To Many Souls”

MOST of us, when we think of Edward Lear, think vaguely of some one who wrote

There was an old man who said, “How
Shall I flee from this terrible cow?
I will sit on this stile
And continue to smile—
Which may soften the heart of that cow,”

with many other delectable rhymes of nonsense and fun; a man who made queer pictures of impossible creatures to go with his rhymes; who compiled a weird natural history and botany all his own; a man who spent his life making odd jokes. We have sung, or heard some one else sing, his “Owl and the Pussy-cat,” and—and— well, that ‘s about all!

But Edward Lear’s nonsense books were the very smallest part of the work of a long and busy life, and his real labor was that of a painter rather than a writer. More than what he did, even, was what he was. A dear and charming man, adored by children, with the gentlest heart in the world, a great love of beauty, devoted to his friends; a man beautifully described by the line at the head of this story of him, the line that is cut into his gravestone in far-away San Remo, Italy.

Lear was a tall man, rather heavily built, and inclined to rotundity in later life. He used to wear clothes that were abnormally loose and seemed to be draped on him. Above his broad shoulders his dome-shaped head, carried rather stoopingly, had a venerable aspect, for he always wore a long, thick beard, given to being curly. The top of his head grew to be quite bald, and he used to delight in making caricatures of himself  in his letters to friends, showing an old chap with immensely long thin legs, a round stomach, an immense, bushy, black beard and a high, egg-shaped, bald head; huge round spectacles completed the portrait most successfully.

Edward Lear was the youngest of twenty-one children, and as his mother died very soon after he was born, on May 12, 1812, he was brought up by his oldest sister, Anne, whom he loved deeply. In spite of the fact that there was very little money, this sister managed to see that Edward got properly educated. In this he helped out, as he began earning his own living at fifteen by making colored drawings of birds and painting fans for small shops, or doing anatomical drawings for hospitals and doctors, selling these for from twenty cents to a dollar apiece. The family was of Danish descent, and the name used to be spelled Lor, with various dots over the letters and a transverse line through the o, all of which showed the Danish pronunciation to be the same as Lear, the spelling adopted by Edward’s father. There was some Irish blood in him, too, coming from his mother’s side, but it was very far back. Before Edward’s birth, two generations had passed since the family was naturalized in England, and he was thoroughly English in thought and manner.

Always, man and boy, he loved to paint, and many are the exquisite color-drawings, lithographs, and paintings that he left behind. He wandered to many places, working in Corsica, in Albania, in Greece and India, bringing back always big collections of pictures of what he had seen, full of the most careful work, yet lovely with romance. And from these different places he would also send back quantities of letters decorated with fascinating nonsense sketches, filled with funny stories, telling many a queer adventure. His friends treasured these letters, and many of them have been printed in two large volumes which I hope most of you will hunt up and read, for you will love them.

At the age of nineteen Lear got employment in the Zoological Gardens, London, as a draughtsman. Here he spent the first year in making a book, a study of parrots, with the most enchanting pictures in color and careful descriptions. It was the biggest and best book of the sort ever brought out in England, and helped to make the young artist known to men who were interested in the same line, and presently he was making drawings for Professors Bell and Swainston, of the British Museum, and illustrating G. A. Gould’s famous book on Indian pheasants.

One day, as he was working happily at some drawings in the Zoological Gardens, the Earl of Derby, who was walking there, chanced to notice him, and was struck with his work. Now Lord Derby was himself a naturalist, and had brought together a wonderful collection of animals and birds on his estate. He was getting out an important book on this collection, and immediately decided that young Lear, and no one else, should make the bird drawings for this book. So off he went to get some one to introduce him to the painter, and engaged Lear on the spot.

That was a really big event, for it took Lear to live  at the Derby house for four years, where he met almost every one of worth and interest in England, and where he became greatly beloved by the earl’s grandchildren, for whom he wrote his first nonsense verses, later collected into  the first volume and published  in 1846. The “Book of Nonsense” met with a welcome that astonished Lear, and pleased him too. All over England and America people, even grown-up people,  laughed over his absurd fancies, and asked for more.


Hawthorne 1


One of Lear’s dearest friends was Alfred Tennyson, and the artist spent years in making a series of sketches and  drawings for the poet’s songs and poems, hoping that a big edition would some day be printed. Unluckily, this never happened, though, after he had died, a limited edition with a few of the drawings was brought out. Tennyson wrote his lines, “To E.L., On His Travels in Greece,” to Lear, and Lear named his first villa in San Remo the Villa Emily, after Tennyson’s mother, and the second one after the poet himself.

In 1837 Lear left England, and never really lived there again, though he visited it often. During one of these visits he gave some drawing lessons to Queen Victoria, who took a great fancy to him. She used to show him cabinets full of beautiful things  belonging to her, and once, when Lear, struck with delight at the rarity of what he was seeing, exclaimed, “Oh, how did you get all these beautiful things?” the queen laughed and replied, “I inherited them, Mr. Lear.”

Another time Lear was visiting the queen, and the weather being chilly, a fire was burning on the hearth. Lear loved to stand in front of it, and proceeded to do so. But each time the lord-in-waiting, who seemed anxious and worried, would call him off to look at this thing or the other, or to meet some one. He simply wouldn’t let Lear stand in peace in front of that fire. Afterward Lear heard that it was not proper etiquette, and was much amused to think of the trouble he had given.

In spite of his sense of fun, he was given to sadness, and was often very blue indeed. He took violent dislikes, too, and always seemed to hate and dread certain people whom he met. He used, after he settled in his Villa Emily, which be had built, to keep one day a week when people were supposed to come to his studio to buy his pictures. He had a servant who was devoted to him, and lived with him for years, a Christian Albanian of the name of Georgio Cocali. This man, till he died, took the greatest care of Lear. and then his son followed him in his love and devotion. This son and Lear are buried side by side, with twin stones marking the two graves.

But on the days when the studio was opened Lear would tell Giorgio that he did not want him round, and that he would himself open the door. Then when a knock came, he would cautiously open it a little way and look at the visitor; if for any reason Lear did not like his face, he would shake his head sadly, say that he was feeling extremely ill and could not possibly show his pictures, and quickly shut the door. Of course this did not help to sell his pictures.

At another time he was traveling with his lifelong friend Hubert Congreve, whom he had known since Congreve was a little boy. They reached Naples, and Congreve went off on some errand, leaving Lear in the station. Presently the young man heard a commotion outside the station and rushed over, thinking that he detected Lear’s voice amid the uproar. Sure enough, there was the old man, surrounded by a crowd of porters who were trying to get a chance to carry his luggage. Lear was shouting at them, “Get out, you scoundrels! Let me be!” and hitting right and left, while they laughed and dodged. It was so funny, the big tall man with flying beard and the dark, small Italians all mixed up together, that Congreve began to laugh too. On which Lear jumped into the wrong bus, refused to get out, and off they both went to the wrong hotel, a place neither of them knew.

Here is another little story.

This is in England, and Lear tells it himself in one of his letters to Lady Waldegrave. He was in a railway-station, and overheard a gentleman talking of the “Book of Nonsense,” which his children had been reading. This gentleman announced that there was no such person as Edward Lear, and that it was really Lord Derby who had written the book. But that was too much for Lear, and here is what he says:

Says I, joining spontaneous in the conversation — “That is quite a mistake: I have reason to know that Edward Lear the painter and author wrote and illustrated the whole book.” “And I,” says the gentleman, , says he, — “have good reason to know, Sir, that you are wholly mistaken. There is no such person as Edward Lear.” “But,” says I, “there is — and I am the man — I wrote the book!” Whereupn all the party burst out laughing and evidently thought me mad or telling fibs. So I took off my hat and showed it, with Edward Lear and the address in large letters — also one of my cards, and a marked handkerchief: on which amazement devoured those benighted individuals and I left them to gnash their teeth in trouble and tumult.

Lear used to set Tennyson’s songs to music of his own, and sing them, without very much voice, maybe, but with so much feeling and understanding of their drama that people loved to listen to him. He used music of his own for his nonsense verses, too, and Lady Strachey regrets that his music to “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” was never swritten down, for she says it was charming. But Lear could not write music, though he could make it, and it cost more than he could afford at the time to get some one else to do it for him. For many years he was poor, and it was only toward the end of his life that money anxieties ceased to press on him.

He left the Villa Emily because a big hotel was built next it which threw a bad light into the studio, and built the Villa Tennyson exactly like in all respects. But it never had the old, ripe look of the first villa, and the garden was not so fine, because it, too, was new. Lear brought back many seeds from the trip in India, and managed to make them grow. He loved flowers, and was delighted with his success.

He was a great worker, and seldom idled. But for all his interest in his painting and his workl on plants and birds, his many lovely drawings of wonderful places in Rome, Sicily, Corsica, India, Corfu, and many other parts of the world, he still had an affection for his nonsense work that was extremely strong. When Ruskin put him at the head of his selected list of a hundred best authors, saying, “I really don’t know of any author to whom I am half so grateful  for my idle self as Edward Lear,” he was delighted. And Lady Strachey said he would sit and smile over favourable criticisms of the books, or be very much cut up if some one wrote disagreeably about them.

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He was a man of many odd notions, tender, sad, whimsical, subject to great depression, but always ready to be kind, to make a child laugh, or to do something for a friend. Every one who knew him loved him. His friend Fortescue, Lord Carlingford, to whom most of the printed letters are written, says of him:

Lear was a delightful companion, full of nonsense, puns, riddles, everything in the shape of fun, and brimming with intense appreciation of nature as well as history… among other qualifications, he is one of those men of real feeling it is so delightful to meet in this cold-hearted world.

It was on January 29, 1888, that he died, in the villa at San Remo. None of his old friends was near him, but he was tenderly cared for by a servant and one of the newer friends he was always making. The year before, his pet cat Foss, who had been his constant companion for seventeen years, died, and Lear sorrowed much for that loss. He put up a stone to the memory of his pet, with an Italian inscription. But he mistook the little animal’s age, and thought that it had lived thirty years with him, for he was losing his memory for details.

But almost to the very end he wrote his letters, with their funny sketches and ridiculous verses, and to the very end he thought of and spoke about the friends he loved.

Hawthorne, Hildegarde. “Edward Lear.” St. Nicholas: A Monthly Magazine for Boys and Girls, Volume XLIV, part I, November 1916 – April 1917, pp. 71-3.

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