Ian Malcolm on Edward Lear (1908)

‘How manyy children received a “Nonsense Book” last Christmas? — few, I trow. How many parents could pass a standard examination in the works of Edward Lear, whose rhymes were the joy of our grandfathers? — not many, I fear. Yet there is no reason which I can fathom why he should not be as intimate a friend of our families as are Æsop, and Grimm, and Stevenson — he, the merryman par excellence of mid-Victorian days. The fact, nevertheless, {467} remains as a national misfortune; but signs are not wanting that a remedy is forthcoming. The reappearance of the “Limerick,” with its attendant lawsuits and disappointments, has drown once more into quasi prominence the name of the maddest master that ever compelled rubbish into rhyme; not that Lear “the Nonsense Man” claims the credit of having invented that particular mode of verse (or worse), but he is drawn forth from his well-earned slumber to stand as a model for all the daft disciples of today who attempt to emulate his glorious absurdity and noble inconsequence in order to secure a grand piano or an old-age pension from a London newspaper.

Another, and a more fortunate, circumstance inspires the hope that Lear will soon become the fast friend of our children and contemporaries. The public is now the possessor of the first book that has ever been published about this “Bosh-master,” as he once described himself; and for it we have to thank Lady Strachey, who bears a name that has often appeared under “appreciations” of Edward Lear and his work in the old days — the name of Sir Edward. Strachey, a lifelong friend of the Nonsense Man. To this lady we are indebted for a delightful volume of “Letters of Edward Lear,” whose quips and quiddities will certainly add to the gaiety of many a Christmas party. True, Lady Strachey has confined herself to letters written by Lear to Lord Carlingford and to Frances Lady Waldegrave between the years 1847-1864; but these, with all their jokes and sketches and quaint comicalities, form an admirable introduction to a fuller knowledge of the jester of our childhood. But they show more than the measure of his mirrh: sometimes these letters divulge a strain of despair and disappointment running through a constitution that was never strong and a career that was never quite successful; and sometimes a depth of feeling that no masquerade could hide.

That was Lear’s temperament; he would probably have called it “pendulacious,” for it used to swing him from the mad heights of merriment to the opposite extreme of aching desperation. His only ambition was to be a great artist, and to be recognized as such; sorrowfully we must regret that this was denied him by contemporaries, and that his posterity shows no sign of reversing the judgment of an earlier generation. Such lack of appreciation preyed on him to a great extent, especially during his latter years, and overwhelmed his lonely and sensitive nature with a sadness of which only his nearest friends were conscious.

Edward Lear was intended by nature to be an artist, and one of high calibre. He seems to have been born with a paint brush in one hand and a palette in the other; and this (if true) was lucky, for he had to draw for his bread and cheese from the age of fifteen until he died a worn-out old man of seventy-five. In a letter to his friend Franklin Lushington. he confesses to have begun by drawing “uncommon queer shop-sketches, selling them from ninepence to four shillings — coloring prints and fans — awhile making morbid disease drawings for hospitals.” Then we know from various sources that he was employed by the Zoological Society, and became first-rate at colored drawings of birds, during which times he helped in the preparation of Gould’s “Birds of Europe,” and so was made known to his future patron and steadfast friend Lord Derby, who engaged him to reproduce in color large numbers of animals and birds for the famous, and now very rare, Catalogue of the Knowsley Menagerie. Here the artist spent four of the happiest years of his life (1832-1836); and, in the bosom of the family {468} to which he had become so much devoted, he invented his first book of Nonsense Verses for the entertainment of his patron’s children. To their descendants many years afterwards he dedicated the first of these “Nonsense” volumes, and opened with the (at any rate temporarily) immortal verse

There was an old man with a beard,
Who said “It is just as I feared,” etc.

It would almost seem that at this time he was trying, in his kindly way, to instruct the youthful mind in the rudiments of geography for he draws his heroes and heroines from such unsuspected places on the earth’s surface. It is true that the idea of composing such rhymes was suggested to him by a friend at Knowsley, who, in an unguarded moment, uttered the pregnant words “There was an old man of Tobago.” That was enough for Lear, and he ransacked the index to the Atlas of the World to find the names of places from which “an old man” or “an old lady” might (or might not) have come — always, as I believe, with the idea of education in disguise. Thus he commandeered Smyrna, Ischia, Columbia, Madras, and Moldavia to serve his purpose; but for ingenuity of rhyme I am inclined to divide the first prize between the old man

…. of Abruzzi,
So blind that he couldn’t his foot see,

and his aged companion the

…. old man of Thermopylae
Who never did anything properly.

I suppose nobody knows how many of these verses Lear wrote in his lifetime, for one finds them scattered about Great Britain and the Continent in the houses of his friends and acquaintances, verses which have never appeared in the four published Nonsense Books. But Lear’s unquenchable fountain of fun was not confined to the limits of Limericks. His prose stories for children were, and are, enchanting. Do you remember the Four Children who went round the world and, in the course of their voyage, came to a land “where the uncooked fish complained of the cold, and mentioned the difficulty of sleeping on account of the noises made by the Arctic Bears and the Tropical Turnspits”? Do you remember the further country which they visited, “inhabited by countless multitudes of white mice with red eyes, slowly eating custard pudding”? And then the Nonsense Cookery Book with its miraculous recipe for (amongst other dishes) an Amblongus Pie, ending “Serve up in a clean dish and throw the whole out of window”; the Nonsense Botany parodying with his pen the appearance of plants, and labelling them “Manypeeplia Upsidownia” and the like. What joy is in store for the generation that knows not Lear and his Learics in prose and rhyme! But the nonsense, pure and undefiled, that flowed from this eccentric brain welled over into nearly every circumstance in his life. His diaries are at times intensely comic, likewise some parts of his published travels, also his private letters to all sorts and conditions of persons. Lady Strachey provides us with a rich feast of Lear’s good things, including a pencil sketch of the famous individual

…. who said “How
Shall I flee from this terrible cow?”

and whose features are now imperishably engraved upon the trade-mark of a New Mexican cattle ranch. She also gives us dozens of specimens of his new spelling—(American Presidents and publishers please note!)—such as rox, boox, Wusstusher (Worcestershire), 40scue (Fortescue), stewjew (studio), and B4 (before), which were {469} the delight of those friends in whose letters they occurred. Of riddles, as of Limericks, he could make no end: after assuring us that we can never starve in the desert because we may eat the sand-wich-is under our feet, he proceeds to ask “Why are the sandwiches there? Because there the family of Ham was bred and mustered.” Once more, he wrote in a letter to Lord Northbrook, “What is the difference between typhus fever and the sixth book of the ‘Iliad’? One is an epidemic, and the other is a demi-epic.” And, for foreign consumption, he invented the following as pièces de résistance when he dined out abroad:

Quand est-ce que vos souliers font vingt-cinq?
Quand ils sont neuf et treize et trois (neufs et tres étroits)

Pourquoi dois-tu chérir la chichorée?
Parceque c’est amere (ta mere).

Let it not be thought that Lear was only a poet in the Limerickian sense. The very mention of “The Cummerbund” — to say nothing of “The Akhund of Swat”  — should dispose of such an idea. The Cummerbund was written after Lear had spent a very few weeks in India, quite long enough to see how pretty a “derangement of epitaphs” he could produce from the vernacular:

She sat upon her Dobie to watch the Evening Star,
And all the Punkahs as they passed cried, “My! how fair you are!”

I will conclude the professionally comic side of Lear with a verse that caught my eye as I was looking over a collection of his letters to Lord Northbrook. He calls it a preface to a poem entitled “Mrs. Jaypher” (which I do not think has yet been published), and he adds the stage direction that the verse is to be read sententionsly and with grave importance:

Mrs. Jaypher found a wafer
Which she stuck upon a note;
This she took and gave the cook.
Then she went and bought a boat
Which she paddled down the stream.
Shouting “Ice produces cream.
Beer when churned produces butter!
Henceforth all the words I utter
Distant Ages thus shall note—
‘From the Jaypher Wisdom-Boat.'”

Capital nonsense this; and the merest Philistine can sympathize with Mr. Ruskin, who wrote, “I don’t know any other author to whom I am half so grateful for my idle self as Edward Lear. I shall put him first of my hundred authors.”

Now we must return to Lear at Knowsley Menagerie, after this long expedition into his drolleries. After four years’ work his strength fails, and through the generosity of his patron he is sent abroad — nominally to paint, but in reality to preserve his health. We need not follow him through all his wanderings, which lasted, off and on, for forty years; but a glimpse into his sketch-books — of which he published several — may not be without entertainment. Instructive also are these volumes, for in each of them he sets down with considerable knowledge the natural beauties, geological formations, and striking characteristics of the places and people among which he moved. The first travel-book was on Albania and Illyria, and is perhaps the best of all. It is instinct with life and beauty: one hardly knows whether to commend the text or the pictures the more. Note the difficulties of getting about in those restless countries in the remote days when, unless the artist wore a fez, “my head was continually saluted by small stones and bits of dirt.” . . . “Shaitan! Shaitan!” (devil) cry the crowds around his easel as they pelt him; “we will not be written down. This ‘Frank’ is a Russian, and he is sent by the Sultan {470} to write us all down before he sells us to the Russian Emperor.” But the artist did not always receive such rough treatment. On one occasion he was taking coffee with a civil postmaster when suddenly he put his foot on to a handsome pipe-bowl. “These things” (he explains apologetically) “are always snares to near-sighted people moving over Turkish floors, as they are scattered in places quite remote from the smokers, who live at the farther end of prodigiously long pipesticks.”

However, crash went the bowl, but not a Turk moved. Lear apologized profusely through the medinm of Giorgio, his faithful servant, to whom the Mahommedan official replied, “The breaking of such a pipe-bowl would indeed, under ordinary circumstances, be disagreeable; but in a friend every action has its charm.” Certainly it is a sprightly and amusing book, full of quaint observation, sound reflection, and racy accounts of difficulties and dangers. In the eyes of many its value will be enhanced by the knowledge that, after reading it and seeing the sketches therein contained, Alfred Tennyson wrote to “E.L.” the poem beginning

Illyrian woodlands, echoing falls
Of water, etc.

in appreciation of its worth.


Other works of similar kinds followed at an interval of a few years apart, setting forth in considerable detail the dally events of the artist’s journeys in the kingdom of Naples, the States of the Church, and Southern Calabria. In this last-named volume Lear reproduces with much satisfaction the verses written to him by one Don Antonio after seeing his sketches:

Genius of Albion, hail! What joy to see
The landscapes glowing on the tinted board,
Fair children of thy thought, so wondrously
Drawn with thy magic brush from Nature’s hoard!

Lear, as I have said, was very sensitive to praise or blame: he treasured up, and liked repeating, any words of genuine appreciation of himself or his works which came to his ears. He did not at all relish being called “Shaitan” by the populace who ought to have liked him; but his sense of humor drowned his humiliation when he found that by bouncing his india-rubber on the ground (“accidentally — on purpose”) he immediately gained the respect which the ignorant pay to the unknown, for the crowd fled away in terror at the sight of this thing possessed by the devil, and left him to paint in peace.

The last book of travel was written about Corsica; not so good as the earlier ones, perhaps; for he undertook a rough and difficult journey, mainly under the aegis of a disagreeable coachman who insisted on introducing him in every village as the “Finance Minister of England.” On venturing to ask why he was thus described, Lear was informed: “Partly because you wear spectacles and have an air of extreme wisdom, and partly because I must say something.” This was the same cheerful individual who was so much disturbed by the notes of the familiar cuckoo that he burst out “May all the Parliament of Heaven be so full of these nasty cuckoo birds that the Saints and Apostles may not be able to hear themselves or each other speak.” These are the only published records of his travels, but they by no means exhaust his journeys, which extended to Corfu and Sicily, to Egypt and Palestine, and lastly to India at the invitation of his old friend and benefactor the Viceroy, Lord Northnrook, {471} to whom he bequeathed his diary and some two thousand sketches.

Recently, when staying at Stratton, the present Lord Northbrook showed me Lear’s diary, kept with great regularity, during the eighteen months that he toured through the Indian Empire, and I was also allowed to glance at a few of the letters which passed between the painter and the proconsul during the twenty-five years of their correspondence. Again, one was amazed at the endurance of this delicate man, roughing it all over India and sketching, as if for dear life, the whole time. But I am anticipating. On the voyage out to Bombay — it took twenty-seven days in a Rubattino steamer from Genoa in 1873 — Lear was accosted by a “German pessimist.”

G.P.: You vear spegtacles alvays?
G.P.: They vill al grack in India; von pair no use.
E.L.: But I have many pairs.
G.P.: How many?
E.L.: Twenty or thirty.
G.P.: No good; they vill all grack. One should have them of silver.
E.L.: But I have, several of silver.
G.P.: No use; they will rust; you might have of gold.
E.L.: But I have some gold ones.
G.P.: Dat is more vorse; gold is always stealing.

From Bombay, where his astonishment at all the wonders of the East knew no bounds, he made for Allahabad to meet the Viceroy in camp, but chafed under the regality of so unaccostumed a life which irked him and made him ill. Then to Benares, which he described as “one of the most abundantly buoyant and startling radiant places, of infinite bustle and movement. Constantinople and Naples are simply dull and quiet in comparison.” After Benares to Calcutta, where he is disappointed and thinks India a hollow pretence and a waste of time. Such is this (rather spoilt) creature of moods — “this child,” as he generally calls himself. At Darjeeling we find him enthusiastic over the “wonderful view of Kichinjunga,” an oil picture of which now hangs at Stratton. And so on through the “show places” of Agra, Lucknow. and Delhi; now and then in a native State, here praising everything and everybody, there causing the very earth to shake with his lamentations about food, lodging, coolies, and all else beside. Of the laundry-work he writes a most realistic description to the Viceroy; it will be recognized as accurate by every cold-weather tourist: “Does your Excellency know that in various places in your Empire the Dobles fill shirts, drawers, socks, etc., with stones, and then, tying up the necks, bang them furiously on rocks at the water’s edge until they are supposed to be washed? Surely, no country can prosper where such irregularities prevail.”

He also sums up his attitude towards the elephant in a manner which is kind but firm: “To this day an elephant is too much for me. I don’t mount those that are sent for me to ride. I just make an apologetic bow and regard them with remote veneration.”

Of course, wherever he went everybody was on the look-out for Mr. Lear, the “Nonsense Man.” Equally, he was on the look-out for other people — to avoid them; for he was not a gregarious person. Now and then, however, he found congenial acquaintances, generally where there were children about, and then he spent long evenings in their company, writing nonsense verses, drawing impossible sketches, and singing Tennyson’s songs to music of his own composition. He was gratified to discover how popular his Nonsense Books were in India, “even in spite of Madame de Bunsen saying that she would never allow her grandchildren {472} to look at my books, inasmuch as their distorted figures would injure the children’s sense of the beautiful; and in spite of the admonitions of other sagacious persons as to my perversion of young folks’ perceptions of spelling and correct grammar.”

Indeed, it is quite touching to read the little story of the child (of his landlord at some small inn) for whom he was drawing an owl, when up came a diminutive companion, who said, “Oh, do draw a pussy too; for you know they went to sea in a boat with lots of honey and plenty of money wrapped in a 5l. note.” Lear was, naturally, enchanted, and sketched in a cat.


It is hardly necessary to follow the artist in all his wanderings up to Simla and down again to the plains and to Southern India (where he made a very remarkable journey) and Ceylon; it is perhaps enough to record that in India, as in Europe, he was always joking as he worked, and that his artistic talent seemed to lie in the faithful reproduction of the minutest details of his landscape, together “wlth an astounding capacity for representing distance and varying distances; whereas life  — people, animals, etc. — he seldom troubled about on canvas, and still more rarely did he depict action with success. But there is no denying that Lear’s best water-colors are very good indeed, nor that if he had exercised a judicious selection of his exhibition pieces, instead of hanging good, bad, and indifferent pictures together in Stratford Place and elsewhere, his value at the time would have been considerably enhanced. As it was, he was very seldom dissatisfied with his work — happily for him — nor did he, until the day of his death, fully understand the reason why he lacked a certain portion of public esteem. His enormous output of sketches must, one cannot help thinking, have cheapened him in the public eye; it may also have lessened the quality of his labor at the same time. However all this may be, the sad truth remains that Lear as an artist found it exceedingly hard to ply his craft with such approval as to pay his way, with the result that he was constantly in what he used to call the Straits of Tin-to, and had to be piloted through them by the generosity of a few of his old friends. It is apropos of his charming illustrations to Tennyson’s Poems (and not quite irrelevant to the matter of his financial embarrassments) that he describes, in a letter which I came across the other day, the subject for his next big picture as being “Enoch Arden looking out for a ship, and crying sadly. ‘No Sale! No Sale!'”


Outside his nonsense and his art there remains to be considered the private Lear, as portrayed in his voluminous correspondence with intimate friends. I believe there is a picture of him, painted by himself, at Liverpool, but I have not seen it. Nevertheless, I know — we all know — what he was like in the flesh, for he constantly caricatures himself as “An old man of” somewhere or another: he is the tall stout individual with a thick neck and small peering eyes protected by large round spectacles, with scanty hair brushed back from a high forehead; with what he describes as “a well-developed nose” and a thick curly and unkempt beard “which resembled a wig.” He was the person whose “figure is perfectly spherical, who weareth a runcible hat”; a large ungainly figure clad in a loose and ill-fitting coat, with baggy trousers and a voice as small as that of conscience. He was the darling of children, who were attracted as much by his spectacles as by his singing of nonsense rhymes. In Corsica he tells us that a little girl ran up to him and said, “Comme il est charmant, ce Monsieur, {473} avec ses beaux yeux de verre”; and another small admirer, with equal simplicity, remarked, “Que vos grandes lunettes vous donnent l’air d’un grand hibou.”

As is so often the case, this lonely bachelor, who cared intensely about children, cared little for the society of others outside his own family circle and a few chosen friends to whom he was passionately attached. His letters to Chichester Fortescue and to Lady Waldegrave prove how strong was his devotion to those with whom he regularly corresponded; how his time and advice were ever at their disposal. Nowhere does his impulsive nature show its merits and defects more clearly than in his correspondence, which has the supreme merit of reflecting his mood at the moment with fatal accuracy. One cannot candidly say that all the letters selected by Lady Strachey are of great value; those, for instance, dealing with the succession to the throne of Greece and the question of the Ionian Islands have very little importance save that which attaches to the remarks of an amateur politician on the spot; whilst his theological disquisitions and self-questionings can only be justifled of their inclusion in the “Letters of Edward Lear” in order to prove that he was a man whose convictions on certain aspects of personal religion were both deep and strong.

To Lord Northbrook he wrote in later days as fully as ever he did to Chichester Fortescue. His exile from friends and feeble health combined to make him devote whatever time he could spare from painting to pouring out his soul in letters to loved ones far away, and the Stratton correspondence is a “human document” if ever there was one. Most of these letters to Lord Northbrook were written after Lear had built for himself the Villa Emily at San Remo, at which he lived in comparative peace, until the construction of a vast hotel in his immediate neighborhood ruined for him all prospect of that beauty and solitude on which he had set his heart. “That brutal hotel, which I have never entered and never will,” was also the indirect cause of further money troubles, since it necessitated the building of the “Villa Tennyson” whilst “Emily” was still on the artist’s hands, a greatly depreciated property; it also vulgarized San Remo to a degree which Lear deplored in a characteristic note: “X. Is coming here soon; so are the Sultan. Arabi Pacha, Wickliffe, Queen Elizabeth, and the twelve Apostles; everybody you ever heard of seems to crop up by degrees.” Many people used to “crop up” at Lear’s house to see his paintings and sketches, but such was his cloistered character towards the end of his life that he used to answer the door-bell himself, and if the visitor was unsympathetic (or a German) he or she was surlily refused admittance, whilst old friends received a genial welcome. All of which was very excusable, perhaps, but bad business, for which he ultimately had to suffer. When he was well his companionship must have been delightful, for he was prodigal in the exercise of his talents as an entertainer. He could converse on every subject grave and gay, could draw and extemporize rhymes with bewildering rapidity, could sing with an emotion which quite replaced his almost non-existent voice. He was also a mild politician — at least, so one would gather from some of the correspondence — and was particularly interested in the fortunes of the Whig Governments when they included his friends Carlingford and Northbrook. But when the Irish apple of discord divided the Liberal party he turned with great animosity against Mr. Gladstone and all his works. “I am so glad” (he writes to Lord Northbrook) “that you will not take office under the Duke of {474} Dulcigno, Marquis of Merv and Majuba, Count of Cairo and Cartoum. Though no Polly Titian, I should not be a bit surprised to know that the Isle of Wight was made over to Russia, and Ireland to America, with a Republic in England, even before I die.”

Such a man, then, was Edward Lear: great-hearted and good to man and beast whilst his strength lasted; a faithful friend in trouble, as I could prove from letters written by him to those in deep distress; a whimsical talented man, whose striking originality was strangely mated to his inordinate energies and capacity for taking pains. He died at San Remo in the early part of 1888, having outlived nearly all his contemporaries, and some time after the heyday of his popularity, yet leaving many friends in most parts of the world to mourn his loss. It was at the suggestion of Lord Northbrook that Mr. Lushington caused the following lines from Tennyson’s poem to be written upon the stone that marks his grave:—

All things fair
With such a pencil, such a pen,
You shadowed forth to distant men,
I read, and felt that I was there.

Is there a niche for Lear in the Temple of Literature and Art? I am not critic enough to say, nor does anybody seem certain on the point. This much, however, may be averred — that no subsequent writer has quite taken his place, though many have written brilliant nonsense since the Learics were published. This fact may not pass him on to the Walhalla of the mighty men of words; but, if he be refused admittance there, he will certainly be found, like Francis Thompson, in the nurseries of Heaven amongst the children who were his heart’s delight.


Malcolm, Ian. “Edward Lear.” The Cornhill Magazine, vol. 24, January 1908, pp. 25-36, as reprinted in The Living Age, vol. 256, no. 3319, 15 February 1908, pp. 467-75.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.