Mr. Lear by Jenny Uglow

Review published on December 9, 2017.

Mr. Lear is a beautifully bound and illustrated book. It looks and feels gorgeous and would make an ideal present for a serious biography lover. Not quite a coffee table book but I did find myself flicking through it, reading the occasional limerick and admiring the illustrations for days before I settled down to read it properly. So even if you come to this biography unfamiliar with Edward Lear, the extensive inclusion of his verse, paintings and drawings will give you a genuine feel for the depth and breadth of his life’s work.

I think we are all a little bit curious about Edward Lear and his nonsense verse, the man who wrote The Owl and the Pussycat. He created a form of poetry that we have all recited and maybe even tried to invent for ourselves over the years. However, I confess to knowing nothing about Lear’s life before reading this biography and very little of his art (his paintings are exhibited in several major galleries but they didn’t really register with me). This biography is as much about the art and poetry as it is about the man. Uglow gives us an insight into Lear’s painting that helps us appreciate that he was a fine artist. I will not make the mistake of breezing past his work in a gallery in the future.

The main reason I chose this book was because I love Jenny Uglow’s writing and this biography lives up to her usual exceptional standard. Mr. Lear is a warm and perceptive biography. Uglow made me think that Lear’s work deserves to be re-evaluated and given a higher place in the public consciousness. Her analysis of Lear fosters a deeper understanding of his nonsense verse and long poetry but most of all instils an appreciation of his art.

Edward Lear was born in 1812. His family now seems impossibly large, he may have been one of 17, 19 or 21 siblings. Accounts are unclear on the the exact number and several died in childbirth or very young. His parents were nonconformist and his upbringing unorthodox. For most of his formative years he was actually brought up by his older sister Ann. Lear never got over the feeling of abandonment by his mother. Ann undertook Edward’s education in the arts. Poetry, painting, archaeology and botany became lifelong loves. They lived on the Gray’s Inn Road. Edward began drawing in earnest and his letters demonstrate his ability to versify. At 18 Lear visited the new zoological gardens drawing the parrots. He came up with the idea of a series, large folio edition, of these images to sell for 10/- each. Clearly an artist of some talent his work was even admired by J.J. Audubon. Lear’s bird paintings were fashionable, something his work tapped into throughout his life. Most of his career he flitted between making good money from his work and being a struggling artist, although his lifestyle never seemed to greatly suffer. Tours of Europe to paint birds and animals followed (his subjects as you will see have real character and exquisite detail). Lear was short sighted and epileptic and was ashamed of his conditions most of his life. Yet he travelled constantly and painted up until his death in 1888. He passionately absorbed nature and archaeology and remained curious his whole life. Lear was a restless man, not always comfortable in society. His tours covered Italy, Greece, Albania, Sicily, Egypt, North Africa, the Middle East and even India. The scale of his art became more ambitious (Lear had an eye for the geology of the place painted). His letters and diaries reveal a witty, thoughtful man who kept much of his life private, naturally at the time this included his homosexuality. He twice proposed to a much younger woman but was rebuffed. He was a friend to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and Tennyson and much admired by the privileged society.

Ironically it was his work as an artist that occupied most of his time and brought in the money but the nonsense verse that he is best remembered for. Uglow manages to bring Lear to life on the page reconciling the two sides of his creative life. She keeps the list of destinations that Lear visits from becoming a travelogue by providing examples of his work and a perspective on their impact back in Britain. Uglow tells us that his nonsense verse was a often a defence mechanism against the real world, whereas, we now think only of the humour in a limerick. Much of Lear’s verse is dark and unhappy, sometimes reflecting on his life, albeit, of course, with a witty touch. Yet, there are tales of murder, abuse, and abandonment and long poems of some intensity.

Lear spent a life time creating his verse but it was only in later life that the publication of Nonsense Verse and More Nonsense brought his verse to the fore.

Uglow states that she is “amazed afresh” when reading Lear. For her, his verse is funny and surprising, nonconformist, occasionally shocking and dark in intent and although it has the feel of another world and seems to break the strict rules of Victorian society his work is heavily based on personal experience. Uglow provides this context brilliantly and her enthusiasm for Lear’s work is infectious. These are rhymes to make you smile but there is depth and perception here too. Lear’s own description of nonsense verse belies it’s quality or the work would not have endured.

I laughed at times and sniggered a lot, the verse is jolly but most of all I think that Uglow has re-affirmed Lear as an artist. In some ways he was a sort of reporter because his drawings and painting brought a world to the public that they could not see for themselves.

This is an elegant biography, extensive enough to satisfy any scholar, descriptive and fascinating and yet so easy to read. Mr. Lear is now one of my personal books of the year and I think it would provide many topics for a readers group discussion to explore. Mr. Lear was short listed for the Waterstones Book of the Year and is the first comprehensive biography of him in nearly fifty years.

Paul Burke 5/4

Mr. Lear by Jenny Uglow
Faber & Faber 9780571269549 hbk Oct 2017

dir97 pbk?

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