Edward Lear, genius of nonsensical writing, was born 200 years ago. Best known for his children’s poems and stories, he was also a graphic artist and landscape painter. English-speakers are celebrating his quirkiness and verbal dexterity.
At the age of 16, Edward Lear (1812-88) was already drawing “for bread and cheese” – as he put it – having developed into a serious “ornithological draughtsman” employed by London’s Zoological Society. Lear’s first publication was Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots (1830) which gained him employment at the country-house of the Earl of Derby, who kept a private menagerie.
Lear was fond of adventure, travelling extensively and publishing many books such as Illustrated Excursions in Italy. He briefly gave drawing lessons to Queen Victoria, who had summoned him to court, leading to some awkward incidents when he failed to observe court protocol. Lear visited Greece and Egypt (1848-49), and toured the length of India and Ceylon (1873-75). While travelling he produced large quantities of coloured wash drawings, which back in his studio he worked up into oils and watercolours as well as illustrations for his books.
In 1846 Lear had published A Book of Nonsense, a volume of limericks that went through three editions and helped popularize the form. In 1865 he produced The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipple-Popple and in 1867 his most famous piece of nonsense, “The Owl and the Pussycat”, which he wrote for the children of his patron Earl Stanley.
In Edward Lear, A Biography (1995) Peter Levi writes:
“He was a rare or unique combination of charm and brilliance and hard intelligence, and a volcano of creativity; he was gregarious and clubbable and socially merry, but with a deep tinge of private melancholy to make him interesting… If Lear had done nothing but his birds or his zoos, or nothing but his travel books illustrated with landscapes, or even if he had written only his letters and diaries, or nothing but his poetry, we would still surely respect and admire him today.”
Most people know Lear’s limericks, poems, and brightly coloured drawings of exotic and improbable animals. Less known are his children’s stories of which the following is a delightful excerpt. It comes from “The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World” (1867) written for the nephews and nieces of his friend Gussie Bethell:
“After sailing on calmly for several more days, they came to another country, where they were much pleased and surprised to see a countless multitude of white Mice with red eyes, all sitting in a great circle, slowly eating Custard Pudding with the most satisfactory and polite demeanour. And as the four Travellers were rather hungry, being tired of eating nothing but Soles and Oranges for so long a period, they held a council as to the propriety of asking the Mice for some of their Pudding in a humble and affecting manner, by which they could hardly be otherwise than gratified. It was agreed therefore that Guy should go and ask the Mice, which he immediately did; and the result was that they gave a Walnut-shell only half full of Custard diluted with water. Now, this displeased Guy, who said, ‘Out of such a lot of Pudding as you have got, I must say you might have spared a somewhat larger quantity!’ But no sooner had he finished speaking than all the Mice turned round at once, and sneezed at him in an appalling and vindictive manner, (and it is impossible to imagine a more scroobious and unpleasant sound than that caused by the simultaneous sneezing of many millions of angry Mice,) so that Guy rushed back to the boat, having first shied his cap into the middle of the Custard Pudding, by which means he completely spoiled the Mice’s dinner.”