Edward Lear is the other great master of Victorian nonsense. Admittedly, Lear (1812-1888) lacks the universal appeal of his contemporary Lewis Carroll, but his longer poems — such as “The Jumblies” (“Their heads are green, and their hands are blue”), “The Pobble Who Has No Toes” and “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” — have been favorites for generations among children and adults alike. A multitalented man, Lear also composed scores of four-line, non-obscene limericks, coined immortal phrases such as “runcible spoon” and dashed off spindly, surreally cartoonish drawings to accompany virtually everything he wrote.
Jenny Uglow calls her capacious and astute new biography “Mr. Lear,” which is certainly straightforward. Still, I wonder if she means us to think, if only for a flickering moment, of yet another great English writer and artist for children, the celebrated “Miss Potter.” Like Lear, Beatrix Potter was equally accomplished with pen or brush and, like him, too, much of her life was characterized by hard work, melancholy and the search for love.
Of course, there’s a far more obvious explanation for Uglow’s title. One of Lear’s best-known poems begins like this:
“How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!”
Who has written such volumes of stuff!
Some think him ill-tempered and queer,
But a few find him pleasant enough.
His mind is concrete and fastidious,
His nose is remarkably big;
His visage is more or less hideous,
His beard it resembles a wig.
The bounce of this versified self-portrait — there are six more stanzas — is quite irresistible, as T.S. Eliot recognized when he paid them homage: “How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!/ With his features of clerical cut . . .”
As the 13th surviving child in a middle-class London family, young Edward was ignored by his parents, taught at home by older sisters and sent into the world as a teenager to make his way, despite multiple disadvantages: He was homely, extremely shortsighted, subject to epileptic fits, often ill and largely self-educated in art, which he hoped to make his profession.
Yet the fairies, or DNA, partially offset these obvious deficits with some extraordinary gifts. From an early age Lear’s draftsmanship could be breathtaking, and he soon earned a name for himself with gorgeous pictures of parrots and plants. John James Audubon, no less, found Lear’s bird portraits stunning and told him so. Yet along with his artistic skills, Lear possessed a genial surface personality that made him more than welcome at the country-house weekends of the well-born and well-to-do. He could amuse the children with rhymes and drawings, produce paintings of the local scenery as a hostess gift, regale the dinner table with jokes and stories, and in the evening sing his own musical settings of Tennyson’s poems while accompanying himself at the piano or even on the accordion.
Before long, the young Lear was giving drawing lessons to the newly married Queen Victoria. Still, he was more gypsy than courtier and much of his life was ultimately spent abroad, sketching or painting in Italy, Albania, Greece, Egypt, Palestine and even India. He learned Italian well enough to give lessons, taught himself modern and ancient Greek — he read the New Testament and Plato in the original — and made a stab at basic Arabic. To underwrite this peripatetic lifestyle, he transformed his expeditions into a series of illustrated books with such titles as “Journals of a Landscape Painter in Corsica” and “Views in the Seven Ionian Islands.” Some of the most famous pictures evoke the Mediterranean of Middle Eastern sublime: The Roman Campagna, the sea cliffs of Amalfi, the ruins of rose-red Petra.
Like other Victorian bachelors, Lear was regularly — but chastely, frustratingly — attracted to handsome younger men but also relished the company of sensitive, clever women, such as Emily Tennyson, the wife of the poet laureate. Among the many pleasures of this biography are its frequent quotations from Lear’s journals and fanciful letters. In one of the latter, he reimagines possible accommodations as “a Pharmouse or a Nin.” To be a good traveler, he philosophizes, one should “put yourself, as a predestinarian might say, calmly into the dice-box of small events, and be shaken out whenever circumstance may ordain.”
Among Uglow’s most valuable and personal chapters are those devoted to Lear’s fantastic, in all senses, drawings and verse. Some of his later poems, such as “The Dong With a Luminous Nose,” can be decidedly pensive or bittersweet, but as Uglow writes, the limericks in his first collection, “A Book of Nonsense” (1846), are “comprehensible as both the foolery of childhood and the foolery of carnival, turning the world upside down.” On the surface, they seem transparently simple:
There was an Old Person of Rhodes,
Who strongly objected to toads;
He paid several cousins, to catch them by dozens,
That futile Old Person of Rhodes.
The accompanying illustration, however, shows a slanting row of identical women — they resemble accordioned paper cutouts — who hold out toads to a sharp-nosed man about to dive off a kitchen chair. Together the words and picture produce an altogether eerie, haunting symbiosis.
Lear passed his later years in San Remo, Italy, with a tailless cat and a loyal servant, dying at age 75. Since then he has been exceptionally lucky in his biographers. I myself own essential books about the poet-artist by Angus Davidson, Peter Levi, John Lehmann , Robert McCracken Peck (“The Natural History of Edward Lear,” which I reviewed for The Washington Post in 2016) and the late doyenne of Lear studies, Vivien Noakes. Still, “Mr. Lear” is by Jenny Uglow, and her name on anything guarantees both biographical and critical excellence, whether she’s writing about wood engraver Thomas Bewick, the “merrie monarch” King Charles II or a plump, Victorian gentleman who is so very pleasant to know.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday for The Washington Post.
By Jenny Uglow
Farrar Straus Giroux. 598 pp. $45