The Master of Nonsense and Wonder
Posted by Richard Conniff on January 21, 2017
by Richard Conniff/The Wall Street Journal
‘The first owl to lodge in my memory,” the naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough confesses in his foreword to “The Natural History of Edward Lear” by Robert McCracken Peck, wasn’t the short-eared owl, say, or any of Britain’s four other native species. It “was the one that went to the sea in a beautiful pea-green boat.” Like so many other children, Mr. Attenborough was enchanted not just by Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” but also by his Jumblies on their perilous voyage to “the hills of the Chankly Bore” and by “the Dong with the luminous nose” wandering by night “over the great Gromboolian plain.”
Lear, born in 1812, the 21st child of a London stockbroker and his unfortunate wife, became the great 19th-century master of nonsense and wonder. We tend to remember him first for the ingenious loopiness of his language—an imagined world of “torrible zones” and “runcible spoons” and, of course, that “ombliferous person of Crete” who “dressed in a sack, / Spickle-speckled with black.” Lear’s fanciful line drawings—the man “on whose nose, / Most birds of the air could repose,” or the old lady “whose folly / Induced her to sit in a holly”—take a whimsical second place.
Lear, however, saw himself first as an artist. Raised by his doting eldest sister after their parents suffered a financial reversal, he began drawing “for bread and cheese” at the age of 15, making what he called “morbid disease drawings for hospitals and certain doctors of physic.” His sister seems wisely to have steered him to plants and animals instead, and he flourished at it. Mr. Peck, a historian of scientific discovery and art at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, ranks him “among the best natural history painters of all time,” though that phase of his career lasted barely a decade.
The opening of the London Zoo in 1828 gave the young artist ample material to work with. The zoo was then an exclusive, members-only society, and Mr. Peck notes that it denied access to an older and far better known artist and animal dealer named William Swainson. But Lear was adept enough as a bird artist, and sufficiently socially acceptable, that the zoo allowed him at the age of 18 to make paintings in its menagerie for what would become his first book. Surprisingly, for those who know Lear only as a children’s author, it bore the title “Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots.”
This project soon immersed Lear in the work of finding subscribers and learning to draw backward on rented slabs of limestone. He called lithography “this lampblack & grease work,” and the economics of the enterprise obliged him to erase each precious image after just 175 prints and start over again. But it was a labor of love. He wrote to a friend that “the whole of my exalted & delightful upper tenement” is overflowing with sketches and lithographs, “and for the last 12 months I have so moved—thought—looked at,—& existed among Parrots—that should any transmigration take place at my decease I am sure my soul would be very uncomfortable in anything but one of the Psittacidae.”
Lear painted living animals, not specimens, and it showed. His birds were “perky and slightly impish in personality (a bit like Lear himself),” Mr. Peck writes. The Scottish engraver William Lizars, who worked with many of the great nature artists of the day, including John James Audubon, commented, “Lear’s drawings are nature, and all others Pottery-ware.” The evidence in Mr. Peck’s copiously illustrated book bears out at least the first half of this judgment.
Through the zoo, Lear came to work for John Gould, an ornithologist who poured out illustrated bird books on an industrial scale. But Gould, Lear later wrote, was “a harsh and violent man . . . unfeeling for those about him” who “owed everything to his excellent wife, & to myself.” He was also humorless. Lear found more agreeable employment when Edward Stanley, the 13th Earl of Derby, president of both the Zoological Society of London and the Linnean Society, became his patron in the 1830s.
At Knowsley Hall, near Liverpool, Lord Derby kept 619 bird species, including 114 kinds of parrot and an astonishing assortment of other animals. (The family maintains the estate as a safari park to this day.) Lear clearly delighted in his many commissions there. He was less comfortable at first “with the uniform apathetic tone assumed” by the human residents at Knowsley Hall, and he confided to a friend that there was “nothing I long for half so much as to giggle heartily and hop on one leg down the great gallery.”
Fortunately, there were children about, and they became the occasion for Lear’s first escape into nonsense. In 1846, at the age of 34, he published his “Book of Nonsense” under a pseudonym. Lord Derby had by then sponsored him on a two-year tour in Italy, where Lear would spend much of the rest of his life. (Mr. Peck describes Lear and his friends abroad as “expatriots.” But they seem, sensibly enough, merely to have disliked British weather.)
That European tour enabled Lear to give up straightforward natural history and launch himself on a new career as a modestly popular travel writer and illustrator. He managed to escape with his life after being taken captive by bandits in Jordan and to survive being driven off in a shower of stones by an angry mob in Albania that regarded his landscape paintings as the work of the devil. But nonsense, and a smattering of natural history, stayed with Lear for life. He published his masterpieces, “The Owl and the Pussycat” and “The Jumblies,” in his late 50s, followed by “The Dong With the Luminous Nose” and “The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò” at 65.
Mr. Peck, intent on delivering a concise survey of the various stages in Lear’s life, recounts his turning away from natural history without much explanation and without visibly wincing at the grievous loss to naturalists. In truth, he makes little effort throughout to explore Lear’s complicated psychology, perhaps meaning to stick to the natural history and leave the rest of it to the standard biography, “Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer” (1969) by Vivien Noakes.
The reader wants to know more, however, about both the fabulous bird artist and the manically inventive fabulist, and about the connection between the two. The portraits of Lear in the book suggest a wan, somewhat melancholy figure, neatly dressed, in oval eyeglasses, who possessed a chameleon ability to fit in at any social stratum. (He served for a time as art instructor to Queen Victoria, no less.) But other authors suggest that he was deeply scarred by his parents’ decision, when he was just 4, to exile him, albeit into his sister’s loving care. He was also mortified, from the age of 5, to suffer from epileptic seizures, which he called “the demon.” And he remained single for life, his apparent romantic interest in male friends unrequited, perhaps even unspoken.
“How pleasant to know Mr. Lear! Who has written such volumes of stuff!” he wrote, late in life, in his familiar persona of whimsical mockery. But the truth is that Lear remains a glorious and beloved enigma. His soul, if there is justice, now brawls across some equatorial sky, joyously squawking in a parrot flock of his own colorful kind.
—Mr. Conniff is the author, most recently, of “House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth.”