‘Never was there a luckier piece of work!’, remarked Philip Hofer when recalling W. B. O. Field’s gift of over 3,500 of Lear’s pictures to Houghton in 1942. In recent years a comprehensive online finding aid has been created, which includes high-resolution images of the drawings and detailed transcriptions of the annotations Lear made on them. Not intended for sale, these pictures were his aide mémoires, references, trials for future work. Yet their unfinished state often lends them an understated, beguiling beauty, and it also allows us to catch the artist in the act of creation, to eavesdrop on his thoughts as he talks to himself while composing. As Hofer observed in his illuminating study, Edward Lear as a Landscape Draughtsman, the year in which Lear began adding nonsense words to his drawings (‘rox’ to denote ‘rocks’, say, or ‘raven’ to signify ‘ravine’) was the same year in which he was preparing his first Book of Nonsense for press. ‘O path!’, he writes on one sketch. Such whimsical hailings might stand as invitations to viewers to take their own unusual paths through the images—and to read them with nonsense in mind.
Granted, many of the pictures are distinctly non-nonsensical:
One sees in the painting something of what John Updike praised as the ‘even majesty’ of Lear’s watercolours, and in the drawing what he referred to as ‘a slightly surreal wiriness’ of line. That surreality, though, can make its way into Lear’s notes in a more pronounced manner: ‘Man with falcon on his head’, he scribbles on one painting, and his notes on another—‘semi genteel Tree’, ‘Vulgar Tree’—are in sympathy with his nonsense botanies. In this universe, butterflies may suddenly turn into ‘Flutterbys’; sometimes the artist gently parodies the pastoral scenes he depicts (‘Ye shepherdes, ye dogge, ye little sheep)’; and, on occasion, local wildlife brings related figures into his mind (‘Turtles=Yonghy Bonghy Bo’).
Other doodles and scribbles witness Lear succumbing to on-the-spot nonsense. Travelling in India in 1874, crowds lose a ‘d’ as the artist loses his temper: ‘O! ye crows of Malabar | What a cussed bore you are!’ Elsewhere, things initially appear serene and sensible:
Until, that is, you note the writing, bottom-left—a kind of graffiti etched onto the foreground, as if to say ‘Edward Lear Was Here’:
By the side of a [?]’s hat
An elderly gentleman sat
By the [?] of his hill was his head
On the top of his wig was his bread.
Spatial coordinates and anatomical oddities get jumbled up, and elsewhere weird figures—not caricatures, exactly, but not uncomic either—put in an appearance:
In a late drawing, the life of the trees is the first thing that seizes your attention. There’s something quietly thrilling about the way they take their obdurate stand against the incline of the hillside:
And then, as your eye wanders, you spot a smaller life-form, a weird visitor from another planet who acts as a sort of visual rhyme with the trees. He (or she, or ‘it’) is part light-bulb, part hot-air balloon, part ice-cream, part cloud:
Sometimes you get the feeling that life copies art, or that Lear’s eye for the tendentious leads him to see things in landscapes that might, in other artists’ hands, have gone missing. Early in 1868 he was circulating what would eventually become his most famous poem, one that explained that ‘there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood’. A few months later, he was studying the woods at Grosseto:
The trees steal the show again, but one shouldn’t miss the side-show—a tiny pig (labelled ‘pig’, lest there should be any doubt about the matter). Note also the flourish in the plucky, piggy-wig-like twirl that Lear gives to the ‘g’ of ‘pig’s tail:
A couple of months before this, maybe the pussy-cat was somewhere in the artist’s mind when he drew one of the creature’s relatives at ‘Lion Rock’:
‘A remarkable object’, Lear wrote in his Journal of A Landscape Painter in Corsica, ‘an immense mass of granite perfectly resembling a crowned lion’. Here, in the margin of the sketch, he scribbles ‘che scherzo di natura!’ And the jokes of nature, the incongruities she puts together for our delight and disorientation, are what he hungers for. Elsewhere he relishes ‘the vast pancake of landscape’, or tells of how ‘scenery may be compared to eating rich Plum pudding continually’. (He enjoys his servant’s exclamation on approaching Petra: ‘Oh master, we have come into a world where everything is made of chocolate, ham, curry powder, and salmon’). Feasting on the otherworldliness of the real, the unknowable eccentricity of the actual—this, for Lear, is the vocation of the landscape painter as well as of the nonsense-poet.
He referred to his art as ‘poetical-topographical’. Commentary on his drawings has tended to focus more on the latter quality; certainly, the artist himself was insistent on the importance of ‘correct representations’, priding himself on ‘placing vines & olives as they really are, and not calling in to my aid, broken pillars, upset capitals, immense gourds, & 15 Ladies in pink & yellow satin playing on Guitars’. And yet, Lear’s demand for topographical accuracy, his desire to get things right, is often sabotaged by another craving, one that leads him to confess of certain features in one of his drawings, for example, that ‘The Church & pines is phibbs. Von vos a barn. – t’others vos okes’. Elsewhere, he observes thistles and then wonders: ‘I should leave out the thistles?’ Sometimes he acts as God of his own creation, tells himself ‘you may make as much grey mist as you please’, or gives himself permission to inject yet more life: ‘You may make taller palms if you like: their stems still exist’. Tellingly, of two sketches Lear makes of Narkanda on the same day (29 April 1874), one is given the place-name as its title, while the other is called ‘Imagination’. It’s as though he is intent on reminding himself of the sheer amount of imagining that goes into seeing.
The ‘poetical’ also stretches—nonsensically yet naturally—to Lear’s way of seeing with his ears. In several sketches he jots down what he’s hearing (or what he imagines he’s hearing):
Looking more closely, you notice that foreground dissolves into musical score:
And this music prompts remembrance of another snatch of song; bottom-right, Lear has pencilled in the words ‘Lotus eaters – they saw the inner river’, which is itself a hazy, half-remembering of the lines from Tennyson’s poem: ‘They saw the gleaming river seaward flow | From the inner land’. Looking back at the painting, and recalling Tennyson’s next words (‘far off, three mountain-tops . . .’), one senses the work of Lear’s hand is influenced by other impulses in his lotus-eater-like head, and that the sounds—near or distant, present or poetical—have informed the composition and mood of the scene.
Lear’s willingness—or, rather, his need—to blur the lines between the factual, the fanciful, and the fantastical is still present in his comments on an unfinished picture that was on his easel when he died, a huge painting of ‘Enoch Arden’s Island’. Taking his cue once more from Tennyson’s poetry, and also from his own travels, Lear told Edith Holman Hunt that the subject would be ‘backed up by innumerable studies’ and would ‘introduce every kind of flower & tree I saw in India and Ceylon &c &c.’ To Emily Tennyson, he added:
The foreground of my large Enoch Arden picture is to be elaborately filled with all kinds of Ipomœas, Passion flowers & c. – The statistic=realistic idiot of this world will say, ‘Why! these flowers are of different countries! By no chance whatever do they ever grow in one place!’ – On which the following discourse will occur.
E.L. ‘Oh yes! they do!’
E.L. ‘Just 43 miles from the coast Enoch Arden’s ship was bound to.’
Critic ‘And where then was that coast?’
E.L. ‘Exactly 43 miles from Enoch Arden’s Island.’
(Critic explodes into several bits. Artist grins.)
It’s a nonsense prose-poem of sorts, which makes it an apt partner-in-crime for Lear’s scandalous act of poetical topography. All his travels, pipe-dreams, and pictures finally come together for him at the very moment his critic goes to pieces. And as the poet’s words become detonators, so his painting becomes his last will and testament, a reminder that his artistry—in text as well as image—had often been a resistance to those who sought to delimit the boundaries of either the tasteful or the plausible. Besides, to combine exactitude with absurdity, to let your dreams have their way with you even as you submit them to the test of your ‘innumerable studies’, is harder than it looks. What Edward Gorey said when paying tribute to Lear’s poetry isn’t a million miles away—is perhaps only 43 miles away—from something that could be said of his painting: ‘Nonsense really demands precision . . . it’s all quite concrete, goofy as it is’.
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