The Victorian limerick writer and artist spent 13 months travelling India’s length and breadth, drawing landscapes and keeping a cranky journal.
Edward Lear died a child at the age of 76 in San Remo, Italy, in 1888. Ill health, which had dogged him since infancy, had drained him physically, but his mind was as fresh as ever: it could still make light of difficulties. This was a survival technique he had mastered at an early age to keep the abyss at bay. What better way to beat the blues than to laugh at the monsters in the mirror? He made fun of his advancing senescence and that of his 17-year-old tailless cat, Foss. The two were left alone after Lear’s constant companion of decades, Giorgio, officially his manservant but his master for all practical purposes, died in 1883.
Lear was left bereft. And then Foss too passed away, soon to be followed by his owner.
Edward Lear, born on May 12, 1812, lived close to death all his life. He was the 20th of 21 siblings, many of whom did not make it to adulthood. Edward himself suffered from poor eyesight, respiratory troubles, depression (which he called the “morbids”), and epilepsy (his “demons”). His birth-weary mother had entrusted the responsibility of bringing him up to his elder sister, Anne, who stayed unmarried to look after him.
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After her death, Lear’s “morbids” increased: in times of acute distress, he conjured up her face and calming voice. In his later years, only Giorgio could soothe his constant anxiety, shooing away the demons. There were rumours about their closeness, and Lear was in all probability gay, but he stayed in the closet. He never married.
Lear was greatly adored by his friends—and he had quite a few: lords, ladies, even a Viceroy among them—but he remained a loner, held back by a crippling sense of inadequacy about his appearance, talent, and social standing (Lear’s family had faced bankruptcy in his childhood, and even when he became a fairly successful painter, his financial condition was unstable, being dependent on patronage). Prone to being peevish in company and making puzzling conversation, he was decidedly “odd”: the same made him a hit among children.
The nonsense verse and comic sketches for which Lear is chiefly remembered today were all directed at children, who, like him, could titter secretly at adult seriousness. Lear did not betray their trust by becoming an adult, the tribe designated as “they” in his nonsense verse—grumpy, self-important, prescriptive, and a thorough bore.
The actors in the poems and limericks are an assortment of misfits who are always getting ridiculed, ignored, poked, smashed, beaten, drowned, by the omnipotent “they”. In the face of rejection, these oddballs puff out their chest and say, “What of that?” as his “Young Lady of Norway” declaims bravely after being squeezed flat by a doorway. For this courage, they are rewarded by the immortality characteristic of cartoon characters. Clobber them with all your might but they will rise again.
“Concrete and fastidious”
Lear himself did. Here is Lear writing his own obituary in the August 1886 edition of Stratford Place Gazette: “We regret to state that at 4 P.M. this day the well known Author & Landscape painter Edward Lear committed sukycide by throwing hisself out of a 5 pair of stairs winder…. [F]inally giving way to dishpear, [he] opened the window & leapt 4th into the street—to the extreme surprise & delight of some little children playing on the pavement,—the alarm of the thinking part of the neighbourhood, & the eminent annoyance to his own ribs and existence” (From the article “Alarming and horrible event”). This is accompanied by his illustration of a nearly bald, bearded, bespectacled man with a rotund belly and disproportionate, stick-figure legs nonchalantly leaping to his death.
Lear’s self-portrait recurs in his illustrations: in all of them he is incongruous, awkward, and akin to the bird and insect figures he was fond of drawing: with his black tailcoat, he might be a magpie or a beetle. He parodies himself mercilessly: “His mind is concrete and fastidious;/ His nose is remarkably big;/ His visage is more or less hideous;/ His beard it resembles a wig.” And then there is his weird sensitiveness: “He weeps by the side of the ocean,/ He weeps on the top of the hill;/ He purchases pancakes and lotion,/ And chocolate shrimps from the mill” (From the poem “How pleasant to know Mr Lear!”).
“Prone to being peevish in company and making puzzling conversation, he was decidedly “odd”: the same made him a hit among children.”
These lines can be a minefield for modern-day psychoanalysts, who are likely to tape him to the couch, but in Lear’s day the chief cure for all unexplained heebie-jeebies was to “take the air”. And so Lear travelled, trundling off to far-flung places like Albania, Jerusalem, Palestine, the Balkans, Egypt, Italy, Greece, Germany, and even India and Ceylon. The travels served a practical purpose, too, giving him material for his landscape paintings.
Undertaking them in spite of fragile health, Lear was like his diminutive, blue-green creatures, the Jumblies, who bravely set sail in a sieve.
And when the Sieve turned round and round,
And every one cried, “You’ll all be drowned!”
They called aloud, “Our Sieve ain’t big,
But we don’t care a button! we don’t care a fig!
In a Sieve we’ll go to sea!” (“The Jumblies”, 1871)
- The Victorian limerick writer and painter Edward Lear was a quirky character.
- His nonsense verse and comic sketches were all directed at children, who, like him, could titter secretly at adult seriousness.
- Lear reached India in 1873, to spend the next 13 months travelling its length and breadth.
- Nature in India left Lear in raptures.
Lear reached India with Giorgio in 1873. This trip was special in the sense it was a commissioned one: Lear’s friend, the then Governor General of India, Thomas George Baring, Lord Northbrook, was fascinated by the eastern Himalaya and wanted them painted for his private collection. He gave Lear commissions worth £1,000.
After landing in Bombay, Lear covered almost all the cities of south, east, and north India in the course of 13 months, producing exquisite watercolours alongside numerous sketches, letters, and an invaluable journal.
Lear’s journals are both an astutely observed account of the flora and fauna of India in the late 19th century and a mapping of his mind. They can be a delight for food historians too with their detailed descriptions of meals, which frequently disappoint him and make him crankier. Travelling by train, boat, jampan, tonga, or on foot, Lear complains of aches and agues but soldiers on nonetheless. Concerned and annoyed by turns, Giorgio mothers him. Sometimes Lear’s fingers shake when he takes up the pencil; he is often disgusted; as often, he is overwhelmed, as when he sees the Taj Mahal: “Came to the Taj Mahal; descriptions of this wonderfully lovely place are simply silly, as no words can describe it at all. What a garden! What flowers!”
If there is not much interest in the local people, there is no wide-eyed adulation of his countrymen as well. Not being a pucca sahib himself, he could mock the pretensions of those who considered themselves so. As Peter Whitfield remarks in Travel: A Literary History (2011), Lear in his travels was “an eccentric, an oddity, and he knew it, representing no tradition of learning, no imperial or nationalist agenda, no viewpoint but his own.”
Before Lear, the artist duo of Thomas and William Daniell had documented India in their paintings. While conveying a sense of vast, open spaces that characterised India in the 18th and 19th centuries, their landscapes are curiously devoid of people, as if a pandemic has swept across the land. Lear’s landscapes, though less known, always have people in them as a point of reference.
For instance, in the painting of Mt Kanchanjungha he did for Lord Northbrook, a cluster of local people, who look like porters, appear in the bottom left. Chatting during a break from work, they seem to be unaware of the sublimity looming just above their head as they go about their business: if nature is indifferent to human presence, in this painting, humans seem to care as little.
But Lear, for one, certainly did. Nature in India, unlike its people, left him in raptures. He writes in the journal: “The texture of coco-nuttery is something quite unlike what can be seen except in this and other, extended tropical coast scenery; myriads of small, white flashes and as many myriads of deep, shady dots, caused by the light and shade of the great, innumerable palm fronds…. Beyond the village all is green until it gradually becomes sandy to the sea-shore where the ancient pagoda stands in complete loneliness above the fretting waves.”
The India sojourn would prove to be his last. It was fitting in a way, for there could hardly be an improvement on the Indian brand of the spectacular: its muchness must have appealed to the nonsense poet in him. As Lear exclaimed: “Roads of such redundant beauty one could hardly dream of! India, Indianissimo! Every foot was a picture…”