‘Curiouser and curiouser’. Such is Alice’s judgement on the weird machinations of Wonderland. The same can be said of the life and art of Edward Lear, whose career and achievements are both complex and contradictory. Peter Levi’s book, which was first published in 1995 and is now reissued in paperback, is a wide-ranging and interesting account of an artist and writer who managed to shift effortlessly between atmospheric landscapes and zoological studies, Pre-Raphaelite detail and child-like cartoons, high art and the dong with a luminous nose.
Solidly based on a wide range of original materials, Levi’s biography traces Lear’s development from naïve youth to his final position as a celebrated artist and traveller. Most of his life was spent abroad, living in Italy, Corfu, Crete, Greece and India, and Levi writes evocatively of the artist’s journeys; surrounded by luxurious heat and endless subjects, he still found the time (like all Victorian gentlemen) to complain about foreign food and sour wine. Moving in elite company, Lear was befriended by the local gentry wherever he went and throughout his life was an intimate with the great and good. His life is emblematic of the way in which Victorian writers and artists moved in coteries and brotherhoods; associated, briefly, with the Pre-Raphaelites, he was a strong individual who drew sustenance from his friendships and associations. He never married, was probably gay, and although sociable, was ultimately left on his own; his final words were given to his Italian man-servant and no-one from England, with the exception of his doctor, attended his funeral.
These essential outlines are deftly charted in Levi’s flexible prose and by the final page there is the sense, as in all good biographical studies, of having been on a considerable journey. Lear’s life was literally a movement from one location to the next, and the book reads like a travelogue. Levi is also a deft historian of the life and times in which his subject operated. The opening chapters contain vivid and insightful accounts of the artistic milieu of the 1840s and 50s, and Lear, at first a largely self-trained amateur who studied animals at London Zoo, is positioned in relation to the great names of Turner, Constable and the Pre-Raphaelites. London, the smoky den of endeavour and despair, is the background against which the droll and inventive artist makes his way, and Levi is skilled at making us re-enter that crucible of talent, moving us swiftly from the dusty pavements to the art-galleries and soirées. Like Peter Ackroyd, whose biographies of Dickens and Blake are models of contextual reading, Levi excels at re-animating the zeitgeist of a lost age.
There are other strengths too. The control over detail is impressive, and despite the occasional lapse (for example, James Collinson was the seventh Pre-Raphaelite, not Charles Collins), the overall effect is convincing and engrossing. Amusing, too, is Levi’s sense of humour and willingness to judge; though scholarly, he shares his likes and dislikes with the reader, and is more than willing to puncture what he sees as pretentious or risible.
My only reservation is Levi’s avoidance of some of the trickier questions about Lear’s personality and experiences. We are told early in the book that as a young man he contracted syphilis – but told no more about his sexuality. It is implied that he was a homosexual (who had a long-standing fixation on Franklin Lushington), but his relationships with men are left in secrecy; and although Lear is presented as an independent man, there is something disturbing and unexplained about his death in isolation. Likewise, the fact that he was an epileptic is practically ignored, a condition which, no matter how managed, must surely have had a considerable impact on his life and work. I would have liked some analysis of these questions, although Levi does not enter this complicated territory.
These reservations aside, this is an entertaining, well-written, amusing and informative biography. It undoubtedly sheds much new light on Lear's early life, and makes telling connections between his life and his times. While it does not enter into detailed critical examinations of his work, it will surely provide an invaluable reference for those who want to trace the relationship between Lear’s paintings and poems and his singular career.
Levi, Peter. Edward Lear: A Life. London: Tauris, 2013.
Last modified 5 November 2013