There was an old man with a tear, who said it is just as I fear….

Art, books, illustration, poetry

,,,,my paintings are done, my ryhmes are all gone and I’m up to my middle in beer!  Apologies to Edward Lear for my take on his poetic form, I shall hand over to a more illustrious poet, and his tribute to the man.

Left by his friend to breakfast alone on the white

Italian shore, his Terrible Demon arose

Over his shoulder; he wept to himself in the night,

A dirty landscape-painter who hated his nose.

The legions of cruel inquisitive They

Were so many and big like dogs: he was upset

By Germans and boats; affection was miles away:

But guided by tears he successfully reached his Regret.

How prodigiuous the welcome was. Flowers took his hat

And bore him off to introduce him to the tongs;

The demon’s false nose made the table laugh; a cat

Soon had him waltzing madly, let him squeeze her hand;

Words pushed him to the piano to sing comic songs;

And children swarmed to him like settlers. He became a land.


[from W.H. Auden, Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957,

London, Faber and Faber, 1966, p. 127.]

Edward Lear will be celebrated this year, two hundred years after his birth. He didn’t have a great start, he was handed over to his sister to look after him, since he was the twentieth child !!!! Lear had a fascination about origin, and perhaps this early rejection had something to do with it. To add insult to injury , at around six years old he had seizures that were then considered demonic, actually epileptic in nature.  He was not a healthy child, and was prone to depession from quite young, to my mind a natural reaction to the difficulties that kept hurtling his way.  He was keen to paint from being young and was employed by the Earl of Derby, who became important to him.  I came across Lear as the poet who introduced the limerick to us, and I loved the silliness in his drawings of nonsense. However I found a man of great complexity and talent, and was delighted to read from his journals, they illuminate his character , humorous obviously, but with a depth and a resilience of character singing from the pages. Here is an excerpt when he is travelling in Petra, Egypt, with a travelling companion, but withstanding heat, long hours travelling by camel, strange food and all matter of distraction from his painting,

As the path wandered among huge crags and over broad slabs of rock, ever becoming more striped and glowing in colour, I was more and more excited with curiosity and expectation… ……. The attraction arising from the singular mixture of architectural labour with the wildest extravagances of nature, ― the excessive and almost terrible feeling of loneliness in the very midst of scenes so plainly telling of a past glory and a race of days long gone, the vivid contrast of the countless fragments of ruin, basement, foundation, wall, and scattered stone, with the bright green of the vegetation, and the rainbow hues of rock and cliff, ― the dark openings of the hollow tombs on every side, ― the white river bed and its clear stream, edged with superb scarlet-tufted blossom of oleander alternating with groups of white-flowered bloom, ― all these combine to form a magical condensation of beauty and wonder which the ablest pen or pencil has no chance of conveying to the eye or mind. Even if all the myriad details of loveliness in colour, and all the visible witchery of wild nature and human toil could be rendered exactly, who could reproduce the dead silence and strange feeling of solitude which are among the chief characteristics of this enchanted region? What art could give the star-bright flitting of the wild dove and rock-partridge through the oleander-gloom, or the sound of the clear river rushing among the ruins of the fallen city? Petra must remain a wonder which can only be understood by visiting the place itself, and memory is the only mirror in which its whole resemblance can faithfully live. I felt, “I have found a new world ― but my art is helpless to recall it to others, or to represent it to those who have never seen it.” Yet, as the enthusiastic foreigner said to the angry huntsman who asked if he meant to catch the fox, ― I will try.

Edward Lears Diaries

To have battled with partial blindness amongst his crippling ailments and difficult background would be heroic enough, but beyond that he has managed to create a whole legacy for future generations to enjoy.  I think Lear was a great man, he rose above his situation and chose to distract himself by pursuing his interests with diligence and above all with excitement. The pursuit itself must have given Lear huge solace, and has left us the richer. Most of us in U K will be acquainted with his wonderful poetry, and illustrated nonsense, – The Owl and The Pussycat must be a favourite, but I for one did not know of his proficiency as an artist of topography, an interest that provoked him to travel throughout the Mediterranean, and into Egypt and Palestine. Lear himself wanted to become famous for his painting, it was his passion and his joy. He remained a bachelor but had deep friendships and enjoyed the company of children . From the journals and the letters to his beloved sister Anne, it is clear that he was a modest, charming man.  Oh, and Auden isn’t the only poet charmed by him, he was a friend of the Tennysons, and on his grave are Tennysons words from the poem he penned to him.

All  things fair With such a pencil, such a pen, You shadowed  forth to distant men, I read, and felt that I was there.

For further reading I recommend his journals which you can find here; and his facebook page , yes really!

I want to finish with some of his nonsense illustrations, just because I love them. and with respect to the man himself, one of his travel paintings.


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