Cover of the book uder review.

Victorian culture was propelled forward by its contradictions, a paradox enshrined in the complicated lives of many of its heroes. William Morris was one of these figures – a socialist who ran a hugely profitable company; Dante Rossetti, "lost on both sides" between painting and poetry and England and Italy, his mind fuddled by drug addiction, was another; and yet another was Edward Lear. Lear's life and career were a mass of inconsistencies and the man himself was a restless individual in pursuit of something he never quite managed to identify.

This complicated situation is analysed at length in Jenny Uglow's outstanding new biography. An accomplished writer in the field who has tackled lives as diverse as those of William Hogarth and Thomas Bewick, Uglow writes at length of her new subject in detailed, wide-ranging and suggestive prose. Her book is exceptionally lucid and well-structured, with a strong narrative, carefully chosen material from Lear's substantial papers, and easy to follow. These are great virtues for a biographer assailed by masses of information, and Uglow knows how to engage the non-specialist while catering for those with a more advanced knowledge.

She is particularly effective as a story-teller, dividing Lear's complicated career into clear periods, helping us to gain purchase on his fluid restlessness. The febrile tone is set in the opening page with an extract from the subject's reflections on the uncertainties of life. Lear tells us that "we are not wholly responsible for our lives," which are a matter of "circumstances ... physical or psychical" (9). Lear was indeed bound by this sense of flightiness, of things, in the words of Philip Larkin, happening to happen, and Uglow defines his progress in terms of an extended metaphor, with the subject as a bird who progresses from "Fledgling" to "Flying," "Tumbling" "Calling" and finally "Swooping." Implicitly comparing him to one of his great parrots, one of which appears on the front of binding, the biographer charts his restless movement between home and the many locations he visited in pursuit of subjects for his books and paintings.

Bethlehem, by Edward Lear.

Although he started off as a nature artist with only minimal training, Lear was primarily a landscape painter, and Uglow demonstrates that his great strength lay in his atmospheric treatments of diverse settings. His experiences in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East are described in entertaining detail, immersing the reader in the ambience of the place and time. The sections on Italy are especially revealing, exploring at length the intricate social and professional relationships between the English visitors and between the ex-patriots and the vivid, everyday life of Naples and Rome. Uglow considers the impact of associates, some of whom, such as Thomas Uwins, are now virtually forgotten, and focuses on Lear's poetic response to the Italian landscape. His perceptions of the atmosphere of the place are vividly conveyed in the biographer's evocative prose. Writing of his time in Rome, she notes how:

Apart from the occasional homesickness, Lear was happy. He drank in the beauty and history of the city, the blue blaze of the sky, the water splashing in mossy fountains, the long shadows of columns in the gold light of sunset … The place that moved him most, however, was the Campagna, the great plain between the city and the encircling hills. [118]

There are many such descriptions throughout the biography and we are constantly reminded that Lear's paintings are transcripts of feeling, rather than transcripts of nature, an interior approach he learned from the Pre-Raphaelites and notably from the paintings of Holman-Hunt. Yet landscape was only part of the equation, and we are also shown the other side of Lear's artistry – his Nonsense poems. These are read not only as baffling pieces of absurdity embodying the sort of punning playfulness that is found in the work of Lewis Carroll, but as serious writings which articulate a satirical view of the world and release in a coded form the author's anxieties; like all children's literature, their application is always to the adult world. The biographer challenges the notion of the limericks' meaninglessness and shows how the verbal and visual signifiers fuse and overlap, creating another example of that most characteristically Victorian hybrid, the "illustrated text."

These parts merge symbiotically, but others definitely don't, and Uglow makes no attempt to airbrush the many fractures and uncertainties. Lear is seen as an outsider, a bird without a nest whose family died or dispersed, whose occupation demands constant movement and whose life as a single man consigned him to an ambiguous status. His repressed homosexuality is noted as one of the causes of his isolation. His relationships with Frank Lushington, his servant Luigi and Guiseppi Orsini are traced in his evasive diaries and letters, and Uglow can only hint at the unresolved nature of his sexuality. One passage suggests the complexity of his desires:

His fantasies are hidden, even from his diary. His homosexual longings are clear but he was also always drawn to elegant, intelligent women. His letters emphasise the grace of the [Italian] peasant girls, their dress and hair, their walk and stature. In the same vein, always partly in jest, he presents himself as a man in need of a wife.... [129]

Edward Lear, drawn by William Holman Hunt.

The implicit text is that Lear, like many a gay Victorian, might have reached an accommodation with heterosexuality. His liking for women suggests a sexual confusion, although he does not conform to the stereotype of homosexual agony and self-doubt. It happened to happen, no more. Lear accepted himself, his strengths and his limitations, and always seemed comfortably bewildered in his own skin. In the end, though, he was left to his loneliness, and died in the same way as he had lived; even his grave in San Foce is "slightly apart" (521) from those of other foreign outsiders.

The book closes on this tragic note, but its telling of Lear's life and art is anything but negative or down-beat. Uglow constantly stresses his wit, his loving nature, his courage – facing down many a threat in the wilderness – his cleverness, his brilliance as a writer and artist, and above all else his extraordinary vitality. It is an uplifting read, an affirmation of the self-made man with only himself to draw upon. Beautifully produced, with colour plates inserted into the text, and elegantly written, with moments of great insight and clarity, this elaborate biography is a well-researched, intelligent and moving examination of the flightiest of great Victorian birds. Catch him if you can.

Work Cited

Uglow, Jenny. Mr Lear: a Life of Art and Nonsense. Hbk. London: Faber, 2017. 608 pp. ISBN 978-0571269549. £17.00.


Last modified 18 November 2017