Monday, July 26, 2021

Beyond The Owl and the Pussycat...

The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea… The opening words from the Edward Lear nonsense poem must have been written into the childhood experience of so many over the past 150 years but I am not sure if they are recognized or appreciated today in the same manner. Perhaps the magical power of the written word has been spirited away by the sea of images that smart screens bombard us with each day, thus rendering books almost obsolete. Do children still love such whimsical writings now- the limericks, verses and prose with their accompanying illustrations ? They were all created by an individual who would introduce himself as Mr Abebika Kratoponoko Prizzikalo Kattefello Ablegorabalus Ableborinto Phashyph - such was his joy for language. I don’t believe we share that same linguistic savouring - that appreciation of word experimentation in terms of sound, shape, function and meaning – at least not at the present time when everything has to be conveyed at speed, in Twitter-comptible size. Perhaps as a result of that, we are simply losing the will and ability to play with language and find fun therein… Just take a look at Lear’s suggested plural form of the hippopotamus… Hippopotamice !
However, language aside, I recently discovered that Lear’s 'bosh’ writings were but a small part of his life’s work. In fact, he had initially sought to distance himself from his nonsensical literature for many years, fearing – as was indeed the case – that it would detract from his more ‘serious’ undertakings. When writing for the children in his entourage as a young man, he had even signed as 'Derry Down Derry', and it was only later on in life that he actually used his real name next to his Nonsense collections. How ironic then that most of his fame appears to be based on this very thing – to the point that the name Lear has almost become synonymous with limerick or was at one stage. Yet far from being some avuncular Victorian, occupying himself with witty scribblings from the comfort of a vast country pile, Lear’s talents as travel writer, topographical painter, and natural history illustrator led him into a unique existence of adventure across Europe, the Middle East and Asia that I had never imagined. The quaint drawings that illustrate Lear’s nonsense writings give no indication to his skill as a highly-accomplished draughtsman. Futhermore, whilst his renown in Great Britain resides solidly on The Owl and Pussycat, The Jumblies and so on, in many of the countries he explored and painted, he is a revered artist. Why hasn’t his extensive talent been acknowledged and acclaimed in his homeland ? Why don’t we know more about Edward Lear ?
The more I have read about Lear, the greater my appreciation of this incredible man and the deeper my indignation that he still has so little recognition ! He was certainly not dealt a good hand in life and the odds were stacked against him in terms of poor mental and physical health from early childhood. His life circumstances alone sound almost Dickensian from the outset. Born in 1812 as the 20th child ( !!!!) of Ann and Jeremiah Lear, he had to be raised by his eldest sister, Ann, since his parents could not cope with the financial burden. When his stockbroker father was sent to debtor’s prison, the young Lear had to earn his own living through illustration work. Having being taught drawing and painting by his sisters Ann and Sarah, and possessing remarkable ability from a young age, Lear was able to make his way despite having no formal artistic training. However, from childhood he experienced the debilitating effects of epilepsy that was little understood and even less accepted at a time when grand mal episodes were akin to possession by diabolic forces. The sense of shame never left Lear who learnt to retire from company before a seizure set in but would also isolate himself when in the grips of the ‘morbids’ – the bouts of depression that would dog him to his final days. Suffering from a poor chest – with respiratory ailments such as bronchitis and asthma – his health was compromised severely and if that wasn’t enough, failing eyesight affected his draughtsmanship !
Yet as life was pitiless in the 19th century, and the workhouse beckoned for those sliding downward, Lear forged ahead despite a constant concern about a lack of steady income. Unlike a 21st century counterpart who would surely be tempted to expose and explore their suffering and point an accusing finger at the shortcomings of the pater familias and the family set-up, Lear moved onward and further afield. He was driven by a restlessness that kept him active and adventurous, leading him to wander, instinctively and repeatedly, on ‘jaunts’ towards the warmer climate of the Mediterranian coast. Lear’s affable nature meant that he had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. His artistic ability and versatility, social adaptability and amenable personality seem to have opened doors for him. He was even invited to give drawing lessons to Queen Victoria ! He himself acknowledged that he had social contact with individuals from « an immense variety of class and caste » - holding frequent exhibitions in order to sell his work. Friendship was further maintained by the humourous letters, illustrated with his comic, often self-deprecating drawings. Nevertheless loneliness plagued him throughout life and he felt himself to be a perpetual outsider, forever the eccentric, adventurous foreigner pushing further afield, stretching his horizons. Perhaps he was also on the spectrum too, as has been hinted, and maybe was homosexual - either way he remained unmarried to the end of his life. Company took the form of a loyal misshapen cat, ‘Foss’, (17 years of feline companionship) and a faithful Albanian servant (30 years of service, albeit as a « thoroughly unsatisfactory chef » !). Lear died just a few months after the demise of Old Foss…
Lear’s artistic talent was made apparent from the age of 15 when he started to earn a living by carrying out medical illustrations for doctors and hospitals. It was, however, his ornithological illustrations that earned him early recognition in 1830. Drawing from the live specimens at London zoo, Lear wished to publish his own book on parrots - The Family of Psittacidae – at the age of 19. Compared to the work of the great American artist and naturalist , John James Audubon (1785-1851), whose work may appear somewhat stuffy and stuffed (based on preserved specimens ) Lear’s studies possess great vitality and naturalness.
It is not surprising, incidentally, that Lear’s art should be so admired by Sir David Attenborough… During his period at the zoo, Lear encountered Edward Stanley - Lord Derby (the first of several). Like many Victorian gentlemen, the latter had a keen interest in natural history and requested that Lear draw the living and preserved specimens from the private aviary and menagerie in the vast estate of Knowsley Hall. From 1832 to 1836, Lear worked in this imposing setting, not only producing the commissioned animal studies but also writing nonsensical verse to entertain the children staying in the grand home. Many of the words and names he invented seem to have drawn inspiration from the exotic animals catalogued in the newly-assembled natural history collections. Lear’s Pobble (with no toes), Dong (with a luminous nose) and Quangle-Wangles sound no more bizarre than the actual Tasselled Wobbegong, Red-Lipped Batfish, Lowland Streaked Tenrec, Aye-Aye and Gerenuk.
A desire to paint the foreign landscapes he saw during his travels, along with the need to adandon the detailed animal studies that were injuring his eyesight meant that Lear decided to settle in Italy and journey from there to find new subjects for his art. For the rest of his life, he made extensive trips, observing and noting what he saw in drawings and paintings that serve as a precious recording today of what life was like in countries such as Greece and Albania. There are several episodes on You Tube to an eye-opening documentary - An Exile in Paradise: The Adventures of Edward Lear that track his incredible journeys… and his amazing art. In view of all that then, it therefore seems odd that Lear should be so revered in relatively far-flung countries, but in his birth country we are incapable of getting any further than The Owl and the Pussycat.
(Above from

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