How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear (1932)

On December 21, 1876, the year in which The Hunting of the Snark was published, the London Times, under the heading “Christmas Books,” made this statement: “To write nonsense well would seem to be a far harder task than many people might think. Let the premeditated writing of nonsense be here understood; involuntary success in that field of literature I perhaps frequent enough. ‘Mr. Lewis Carroll’ as he pleases to call himself has a good deal to answer for. Since he first gave us ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ the number of aspirants to the crown of fame made for himself by that work has been legion indeed. But it has been eclipse first and the rest nowhere and even Mr. Carroll has been as far behind the Mr. Carroll who wrote ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as any of them. . . . Mr. Edward Lear too sends forth another ‘Book of Nonsense.’ If this, Mr. Lear’s fourth volume, is not on the whole as good as his earlier works of the same nature, there is still a good deal of fun in some of these ‘Laughable Lyrics.'”

The Spectator of April 9, 1887, nine months before Lear’s death, also couples the names of the two authors: “We are inclined to think that the laureate of all nonsense poets – Edward Lear – was the initiator of the practise. ‘Scroobious’ and ‘borascible’ certainly are to be found in his first book of rhymes, and in the third, when the influence of Lewis Carroll had doubtless begun to react upon him, we discover an allusion to the ‘Torrible Zone’ which is one of the most beautiful pormantologisms. In calling Mr. Lear the laureate of nonsense writers we have not scrupled to put him above Lewis Carroll, which will doubtless seem rank heresy to many of the admirers of that delightful writer.” And as late as1930, in the summer number of Artwork, Mr. Martin Hardie, in an article on Lear, writes: “His drawings were to him what mathematics were to Lewis Carroll, who insisted that mathematics were the true Wondeerland where nothing is impossible and the incredible must always be credited.”

Yet in 1932 a public which is celebrating the centennial of Carroll has very nearly forgotten the name of Edward Lear. Such nonsense rhymes as “The Owl and the Pussy Cat” and “There was an old man of Kamschatka” were certainly quite as familiar to the children of a generation ago as Alice. Now when the two first are recalled to mind the identity of the author is lost in obscurity, while at the mention of the last we automatically picture a tall, slim, rather bashful professor of mathematics rowing three very happy little girls up the river to Godstow “all on a summer afternoon.”

It is not the purpose of this short article to discuss again the familiar story of the publication of Alice or the technical reasons for the recall of the first edition (1865), a matter which has not yet been altogether explained. Inserted in an 1865 Alice in the Huntington Library is an undated letter from Tenniel to Dalziel which may throw some light on the matter. The second paragraph reads as follows: “Mr. Dodgson’s book came out months ago; but I protested so strongly against the disgraceful printing, that he cancelled the edition. Clay is now doing it for Xmas.” If Tenniel actually insisted on the recall of the edition, it is this fact which may have given rise to the legend that the woodcuts were unsatisfactory. Whatever the reason may have been, everyone knows now that the bound volumes were hastily recalled and that a second London edition, dated 1866, appeared promptly while the unbound sheets of the first were hurried across the Atlantic and brought out by Appleton in New York in the same year. The point to be made is that, rare as the first edition of Alice is today, it is not so rare as the first edition of Lear’s Book of Nonsense, published in London in 1846. After two years of search it has been impossible to locate but one copy and this because the little volume was literally loved to and read to death. We do not know just how large the first edition was, nor the second, which was published in 1856, but we have very good proof from Lear’s own diaries, now in the collection of Mr. William B. Osgood Field of New York, and other sources, that in 1861 a third edition of six thousand copies with “45 additional subjects” was brought out – and of this edition only a proof copy appears to have survived. Frankly acknowledged by critics as the two great nonsense writers on the nineteenth century, strangely alike, yet unlike, the dissimilarity of the two men invited comparison.

Edward Lear was born in Highgate May 12, 1812, of middle-class parents of Danish origin who died when he was still a child. He was left, the youngest of twenty-two children, to be brought up by his oldest and very devoted sister Ann. He must have shown his artistic bent at an early age, for at fifteen he was supporting himself by coloring prints and making medical drawings. Later he collaborated with John Gould, John Edward Gray and other ornithologists and was of great assistance to the former with his illustrations for Birds of Europe, published in 1832-1837.

The seriousness and beauty of Lear’s work at this time is a surprise to all who know him only through his “nonsenses”, as he called them. William Swainson the naturalist wrote to Lear in 1831 concerning his drawing of a red and yellow macaw for Illustrations to the Family of Psittacidae, then on the eve of publication: “The latter is in my estimation equal to any figure ever painted by Barrabaud of by Audubon for grace and design perspective of anatomical accuracy.” It was the publication of this volume which led to the artist’s discovery by the Earl of Derby, who took him off to Knowsley, where he drew from the menagerie at intervals for ten years. A number of these drawings were published in 1846 under the title of Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall. This period marked a turning point for Lear, as it was at Knowsley that he made the acquaintance of many of the men and women who became his staunch friends in later years. While he frequently professed a distaste for social life, it soon appeared to be the pivot upon which his artistic career revolved. His finances were uncertain always, and at times the wolf, albeit a very genteel one, was at the door. The friendship of such men as Lord Carlingford and Lord Northbrook and of such women as Lady Waldegrave, based on a real affection of which we have ample proof, gave him not only his greatest pleasure but very material aid to the day of his death. Lady Waldegrave’s niece, Lady Strachie, who knew the artist in her childhood, has told us that he was a delightful person, charming always except, alas, on the rare occasions when he took a dislike to someone. Then, like the little girl in the well known nursery rhyme, he could be very very horrid.

In the early 1840’s Lear turned to landscape painting, but his health was poor, and this handicap, combined with a slender purse, led him finally to leave England for a time and go to Rome, where he supported himself by teaching drawing and publishing books of travel, Rome and its Environs and Excursions in Italy, which he illustrated. The latter of these is said to have been the means that led to his giving drawing lessons to Queen Victoria, in 1846.

All too soon, however, Lear lost the inspiration of his earlier work. His style became hard and dry, and the cause was not far to seek. It was the old story of the necessity for keeping the pot boiling. He travelled extensively, making quite delightful sketches, all of them freely but accurately drawn. Then he would return to London, taking rooms for the season, and in one of these, which he called the “gallery”, hang from fifty to a hundred drawings at a time. Cards were sent out to his many devoted friends and acquaintances, for Lear became an almost professional “diner-out.” Orders were taken from this sample exhibit and then days, months and, in come cases, years were spent in executing commissions obtained in this way. Petras, Philoes, and Cedars of Lebanon were turned out by the half dozen, big and little, colored and black and white, many of them transferred and “penned out”, to use his own expression, on lonely winter evenings, all of them painstaking and spiritless, and much like his books of travel – meticulously correct, for Lear could be a remarkably good draughtsman when he chose.

He exhibited a number of paintings at the Royal Academy and one of his largest pictures, th e”Bassae”, was bought by subscription for the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge. In later life Lear established himself in the Villa Emily at San Remo, named after Lady Tennyson, an old and admired friend. In the seventies he was invited to India by Lord Northbrook, who was then Viceroy. He remained there for two years as the latter’s guest, travelling from place to place and making some thousands of sketches which until recently have formed a part of the Northbrook collection, carefully filed away in cabinets designed for their reception by Lear himself.

Perhaps the greatest ambition of his life was to do a series of illustrations for Alfred Tennyson’s poems. He designed and worked over drawings, water colors, oils and lithographs for twenty years with the hope of publication, but in 1885, two years before he died, he was obliged to relinquish his dream owing to failing health and eyesight. In 1889 a memorial edition containing three poems was published with a number of the illustrations Lear had completed, together with a biographical preface by Sir Franklin Lushington, one of his oldest friends.

Outwardly of a friendly and genial disposition, the true character of the man is disclosed in the diaries which it has been our privilege to study recently. He destroyed the earliest one himself, but the remaining thirty, kept from 1858 to within a short period of his death, give one the background against which his artistic and social aspirations form a moving panorama. In them his loneliness, his longing for a home, his love of children, and his frequent despair at the “emptiness of the world” is revealed. At Knowsley during his younger days, in a world in which he was something of an alien, he undoubtedly turned to the society of children for companionship. The unselfconscious hours bore fruit in the simple and spontaneous rhymes and drawings which came from his pen. He would indeed have been surprised had he realized that largely by these his memory would live today. When he died at San Remo on January 29, 1888, he was alone except for an old servant. His physician’s widow later described his death as most peaceful: “The great good heart simply slowly ceased to beat. We went to the funeral. I have never forgotten it, it was all so sad and lonely. After such a life as Mr. Lear’s had been.” He chose to have his tombstone marked with the legend: “A Landscape Painter in Many Lands.”

The story of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson is so familiar that only certain facts need be emphasized in order to make clear the contrast with Lear. Unlike Lear, he came from a scholarly family with a bishop among his forebears. On January 24, 1851, not long after his matriculation at Oxford, he took up his residence at Christ Church College, and the following year moved into permanent quarters where he remained for forty-seven years. Any disturbance in his routine, even so slight a one as a sea-side vacation, had a depressing effect upon him. Yet he always believed in the wisdom of “waiting a bit.” Assured of his place in the world and the means to maintain it, he could well afford to philosophize. It was quite otherwise with Lear, who, when overcome by restlessness of despair, scarcely delayed long enough to plan for his next objective point. In April, 1866, suddenly wearied by what he termed a “quashed” winter at Malta, he embarked on the first boat to touch at the island, still undecided as to his destination. “Whither? Naples, Malta, Messina?” he questioned as he sailed.

Dodgson deliberately invented the pseudonym which he used for his fanciful writings, and in later years wrote with modest sincerity: “The more people that there are who know nothing of Lewis Carroll but his books, the happier I am.” Lear drifted into the character of “Derry down Derry” as part of the game of nonsense before he ever dreamed of publication. It was the name by which he called himself to the grandchildren of the Earl of Derby, for whom the first of his nonsense drawings were made. He emerged in his true colors with a certain pride when the third edition of the Book of Nonsense appeared in 1861, with his own name on the title-page and he even confessed to lurking about bookstalls and introducing himself modestly in railway carriages in order to ascertain the public’s opinion of his book.

When, in 1896, a controversy arose at Oxford regarding the question of resident women students and their admission to the degree, Dodgson issued a pamphlet stating his opinion in regard to “that social monster the ‘He Woman'” in very definite terms. Many years before, in 1859, Lear had been visiting William Empson, the vicar of  Romsey, whose living came to him from William Edward Nightingale, and had there heard the latter’s daughter, Florence, freely discussed. The family were much distressed that she lived at the Burlington “with a maid only” and visited them very seldom. The artist’s generous comment was: “These things appear to lesser minds a mystery but I cannot but think that they are the natural result of her life.”

At the end of 1857 Carroll closed his diary with the following words: “Great mercies, great failures, time lost, talents misapplied, such has been the past year.” On December 31, eight years later, Lear wrote at Malta: “So ends 1863. A year in which there has not been much self-disprovement. At present not seeing far beyond a month or two patience and hard work are the order of the day. Considering the difficulty of settling here, and its great expense, there is much to be thankful for, the beauty of the early morning among other things.”

Such were the two men who, strange as it may seem, were to a certain extent literary rivals in their day. Dissimilar as they were, comparison is interesting. Dodgson was born a conservative, and that quality was fostered in him by tradition and training. Lear’s conservatism was the result of conventions imposed upon him by surroundings which were somewhat foreign to his nature and upbringing. Fundamentally it was the conservatism of fear. Lewis Carroll was an intellectual and a genius. Lear was neither. Carroll’s nonsense went deep below the surface, just as his serious work was touched with a humor utterly beyond the simplicity of Lear. The former lost himself completely in his interest of people and events about him; the latter weighed every detail of what occurred in relation to himself. Carroll never wasted time at social functions – they were the breath of life to Lear. Yet both men drew diagrams of the dinner tables in their diaries after an impressive social event. Carroll was retiring; Lear, though supersensitive, seemed able and more than willing to make friends wherever he went. Both men had many friends in common, among them Tennyson, Holman Hunt, and Millais.

James T. Fields likened Lear to the Pied Piper of Hamelin. He had no physical charm. He was thick set, not tall, and very near-sighted, with a huge black beard which he always caricatured grotesquely in the many drawings he did of himself. Yet he must have had some strong power which allowed him to make and keep the friends he did. Perhaps sufficient stress has not been laid on his sincerity and on the humility with which he approached his work. He realized his own shortcomings all too well. Life did not offer him the security that it did Carroll, but there was one place where he was quite safe. It was in the same spot that these two strangely different men could meet with complete confidence and understanding, and this was in the heart of a child.

Coolidge, Bertha. “How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear.” The Colophon. A Book Collectors’ Quarterly, Part Nine, New York, 1932.

One Response to How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear (1932)

  1. goetzkluge says:

    There was an old man of Port Grigor,
    Whose actions were noted for vigour;
    He stood on his head till his waistcoat turned red,
    That eclectic old man of Port Grigor.

    Edward Lear, 1872

    513 · · He was black in the face, and they scarcely could trace
    514 · · · · The least likeness to what he had been:
    515 · · While so great was his fright that his waistcoat turned white –
    516 · · · · A wonderful thing to be seen!

    Lewis Carroll, from “The Hunting of the Snark”, 1876

    Carroll’s nonsense strictly followed Lear’s logic.

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