Mid-Victorian Memories of Edward Lear

Robert Edward Francillon (1841-1919), barrister, novelist and journalist, editor of The Tatler circa 1877 (works ar Archive.org); from Mid-Victorian Memories. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914. 30-35:

My second author [the first being Thomas Talfourd] was of a very different order. I am certainly not alone in affectionate memories of Edward Lear, When quite a young man, living in London as young men without means or any prospects better than Alnaschar’s do manage to live, he was introduced into my mother’s home circle by her brother Robert, then studying art—my only near relation neither sailor nor lawyer—under (I think) Hulmandel. He at once became an ever welcome visitor: an almost brotherly and sisterly relation grew up between him and the group of bright young girls who then filled with life the house in Queen Square. It was on one of my visits there that I met him for the first time. Marriages, two of them entailing emigration to an island in then distant and remote Ontario, had thinned the group by that time, and the years had not passed over those who were left without a sign. But such changes as these were not of the sort that affected Lear. One has heard a great deal of late about “genius for friendship.” The rather worn-out phrase might well have been invented, in its original freshness, for him. Of his ever-increasing multitude of friends I do not believe that he ever lost one except by death; a new friendship never lessened an old one; and it is impossible to imagine his having ever made an enemy. His correspondence came to be immense—he had at last to settle a scheme for its restriction, lest it should absorb the whole of his time. Whether he kept to such a scheme is more than doubtful. However that may be, he never ceased to write at frequent intervals to my mother so long as both were alive—long and intimate letters, free from the by no means brilliant jocularity of comic spelling which makes his published letters to Chichester Fortescue such wearisome reading. Only an occasional grotesquely coined polysyllable gave the Learian cachet to really amusing and interesting accounts of what he was doing or planning. They were a pleasure to us all. Alas, that such would-have-been valuable contributions to my reminiscences should have disappeared— I cannot think inadvertently, much less intentionally, destroyed.

Lear’s love of children, and his immediate attraction for them, was of the essence of his charm. That first meeting of mine with him is memorable inasmuch as, while talking to my aunts, he amused himself for my benefit by making a pen-and-ink drawing of an Eastern landscape, with camels and palms. I did not listen to the talk: I was wholly absorbed in following the strokes of the pen. I treasured it as long as the wear and tear of nurseries and schoolrooms allowed. Much more interesting, however—indeed they may take rank as pieces of literary history—were Lear’s occasional visits to us at Cheltenham; for we children, my brother, my sister, and myself, were delighted eyewitnesses of the production of some of the earliest pages of the first “Book of Nonsense;” both pictures (so to call them) and rhymes. The current tradition is that these were dashed off for the children of the fourteenth Earl of Derby. No doubt many of them were, for Lear numbered at least three successive earls among his patrons—which in his case invariably meant his attached friends; and his first commission, as an animal painter, had come from Knowsley. But equally without doubt many other children had their part in the fun; and I can answer for the very considerable part accorded to us three. We possessed a good share of the original drawings, made while we stood by the artist’s knee, and their attendant “Limericks” were household words, long before there was any thought of their collection and publication. Alas, again! When the general collection came to be made, our particular one was added to it, and, translated into print, was no longer our very own, that we had watched flow for us from the pen. Apropos of the connection of the House of Stanley with the “Book of Nonsense,” Lear used to tell how, soon after its publication, he was travelling in a railway carriage opposite a family party engaged in enjoying its fun. The father proceeded to explain to the children that its actual author was the Earl of Derby himself, under the pen-name of Edward Lear : a very slight disguise of “Edward, Earl,” “Lear” being of course an obvious anagram of ” Earl.” The veritable author’s assurance that not only was Edward Lear the real name of a real person, but that he himself knew him well, had no effect beyond provoking a little temper. “I have it on the very best authority,” was the unanswerable retort to all he could say. Even when he produced a visiting card, and declared himself to be the man, it was evidently to be regarded as either a lunatic or an impostor. Considering the popular preference of fable, the wilder the better, to fact, it is really surprising that so first-class a myth as the identity of the Rupert of Debate with Derry-down-Derry should have failed to fix itself ineradicably in the public mind.

Lear’s friendship was an inheritance from generation to generation ; and after I came to London in 1863, never again to leave it, I seldom missed seeing him on any of his visits there. It was on his last visit that I saw him for the lasttime. My mature impression of him is that he was, in spite of any superficial evidence to the contrary, a melancholy man, weighed down by a sense of solitude. His innumerable friendships were, I think, too much in the nature of a crowd: and there is no such loneliness as is to be found in a crowd. His gentle and affectionate nature needed marriage, especially if it should give him children of his own instead of all the world’s. But to this there was the oddest of all odd obstacles. He had an ingrained conviction that he was too ugly for any woman to accept him. No doubt he was ugly. His impressionistic self-portraiture on the first page of the “Book of Nonsense” as the “Old Derry-down-Derry, Who loved to see little folks merry,” is scarcely a caricature: and his plainness of face was made the more emphatic by his nearness of sight, awkward slouch, and a style of dress which can only be called careless by courtesy. He may have thought that dress was no concern of one for whom it could do nothing. But though, as a true humorist, he could make himself his own butt, that perverse conviction of his unquestionably rankled. How absurdly, how pathetically perverse it was, experiment would soon have taught him: to say nothing of such precedents as those of Wilkes and Mirabeau to the effect that a man may be as ugly as he pleases—or doesn’t please. But then Lear was constitutionally shy: which is more than can be said of Wilkes and Mirabeau. He would, I am sure, have been a happier man could he have comfortably acquiesced in destiny, like a more than plain-featured but excellent friend of mine, beside whom I was sitting at a smoking concert when the splendidly handsome hero of a recent notorious scandal came into the room. “Ah,” said my friend out of his abundant charity, ” but just think of all the temptations that beset a handsome man like that! We don’t know anything about them—I and you.” I did not make the obvious retort of “Speak for yourself, if you please”: the reflection was so evidently meant, in all simplicity, to help me share his satisfaction in being—as he fancied—immune from the peril of pleasing ladies’ eyes.

But to return for a last moment to Lear. Had he been a veritable Apollo to look at, I do not believe that he would have been a whit different from what he was—one in whom nobody who knew him could imagine a deed, word, or thought that was not kind, generous, unselfish, and pure. I wish I did not fear that while giving so much pleasure and happiness all round, he somehow left himself out of the deal.

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© Trustees of the British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum

George Cruikshank, Undeviating Rectitude, 1819. British Museum images.




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Further Announcements


I don’t remember whether I already mentioned the exhibition currently at the Scottish National Gallery, Edward Lear in Greece, featuring pictures from the collection of Steven Runciman. The Gallery will also offer a free lecture on “Edward Lear: Painter of Poetical Topography” by Senior Curator of British Prints and Drawings Charlotte Topsfield; at Hawthornden Lecture Theatre – Gardens Entrance (SNG) on 25 April 2014.

Edward Lear, Palaiukhora, Crete. 29 April 1864. Christie's.

Edward Lear, Palaiukhora, Crete. 29 April 1864. Christie’s.

Stephen Duckworth will be giving a talk on “Edward Lear and his Cretan Drawings” at the Historical Museum of Crete, Andreas & Maria Kalokerinos House (27 Sofokli Venizelou Ave / 7 Lysimachou Kalokerinou Street 71202 Heraklion, Crete) on Wednesday, 14 may 2014 at 19.30.

Meanwhile, issue 10 of the New Escapologist, dedicated to Absurdity has been published.

Aeon Magazine has a very interesting article on repetition in music with some relevance to Nonsense: One more time: Why do we listen to our favourite music over and over again? Because repeated sounds work magic in our brains.

And here is an essay discussing Lear, Lewis Carroll and W.S. Gilbert:

Banerje, Sreeradha. “Elements of Social Concern and Absurdity in Non-sense Poetry of the Late-Victorian Period.” Literary Spectrums: Recent Studies in English Literature. Ed. Partha Kumar Mukhopsfhysy. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons, 2007. 153-166. Google Books.

This is added to the Studies on Nonsense page, together with the results of the latest attempts at refreshing my German:

Lang, Peter Christian. Literarischer Unsinn im späten 19. und frühen 20. Jahrhundert: Systematische Begründung und historische Rekonstruktion. Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Peter Lang, 1982.

Köhler, Peter. Nonsens: Theorie Und Geschichte Der Literarischen Gattung. Heidelberg: Carl Winter – Universitätsverlag, 1989.

Finally, though not strictly related to Nonsense literature, the following book contains a long chapter on Edward Lear as an illustrator of his own work (pp. 205-264), together with analyses of illustrators Linley Sambourne (The Water Babies), Arthur Hughes (At the Back of the North Wind), Tenniel (Alice books), Caldecott, Greenaway and Crane:

Esser-Hall, Gabriele. Untersuchung Zu Formen Visueller Textinterpretation Im Englischen Kinderbuch Von 1846 Bis 1890. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1997.

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Peter Newell, A Game of Croquet without Rules


Harper’s Young People, June 30, 1885.

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Desperate Remedies: A Punch Limerick


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Gerace Celebrates Edward Lear

I found this article only a few days ago: it reports that Gerace, a small town in Calabria, put up a plaque last June to celebrate Edward Lear’s two visits to the town. Here is a photograph:


The plaque reads:

In memory
Edward Lear
English painter, writer
and traveller
who was here a guest
of the Scaglione family
August 1847
The Municipalty of Gerace
The Anglo Italian Club
in Reggio Calabria

The article also mentions a book I did not know of: Il tempo, il viaggio e lo spirito negli inediti di Edward Lear in Calabria by Giuseppe Macrì, based on 21 previously unpublished drawings at Harvard, presumably part of the Houghton Library collection which has been online for some time. Here is a review, in Italian, from direfarescrivere, anno IX, n. 95, novembre 2013.

While we are on the subject of non-English books, Annemarie Schöne’s 1970 book on Nonsense, Englische Nonsense- und Grusel-Balladen: intellektuelle Versspiele in Beispielen und Interpretationen und mit Übertragungen im Anhang (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht) is now available for download from Heidelberg University Library. Also, Winfried Nöth’s essay “The Art of Self-Reference in Edward Lear’s Limericks” can now be read on Google Books as part of a collection: Literatur und Lebenskunst: Festschrift für Gerd Rohmann. Ed. Eva Oppermann. Kassel: Kassel University Press, 2006. 131-145.

Of some interest might also be Louise Anemaat’s Natural Curiosity: Unseen Art of the First Fleet (Sydney: Newsouth, 2014), discussing a collection of drawings of Australian animals executed in the 1790s for Aylmer Bourke Lambert and acquired by  the 13th Earl of Derby in 1842. A richly-illustrated preview is avaiable on Google Books.


F.O. Morris, Knowsley Hall, c. 1880, colour woodblock print. From F.O. Morris, A Series ofpicturesque views of seats of the noblemen and gentlewomen of Great Britain and Ireland (from Anemaat’s book)

For something lighter, take a look at Anthony Madrid’s version of Edward Lear’s “The Scroobious Pip” and try to identify Anthony’s 3%.


Finally, Andy Packer informs me that highlights from Slingsby’s Ode to Nonsense are now available on Vimeo.

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George Carlson’s Old Person of Ware



George Carlson, from Puzzle-Fun Comics, no. 1, Spring 1946.

On Carlson see the long two-part essay by Paul Tumey: part 1, part 2.

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