Most of us know Edward Lear as the ‘nonsense poet’, writer of such well-loved gems as ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, ‘The Quangle-Wangle’s Hat’ and of course the limericks. He was also an accomplished painter who travelled extensively, funded by patrons and subscribers.
Jenny Uglow, a Lear devotee, has written a very detailed biography which uses letters and diaries to build a portrait of this intriguing literary figure. For me, the book was a little too detailed, but I imagine that it would be useful to a student. I liked how Lear’s presentation of himself as a bird is reflected in the titles of the sections: Fledging, Perching, Flying, Tumbling, Circling, Calling, Swooping. The best thing about this book is the very generous number of illustrations. Not only are there three sections of colour plates, most of them of his artwork; the text is sprinkled with line drawings and photographs too. Lear’s painting career (which he was serious about, unlike his attitude towards his fun and subversive nonsense poems) was not really appreciated until recently. His paintings of birds in particular are wonderful.
The text didn’t always engage me, but then I do tend to struggle with large biographies (this one is over 500 pages). However, for a £1 find in a charity shop, there is nothing to complain about. I now have a better understanding of Edward Lear. This biography is well-written and excellently illustrated.
First published in 2017 by Faber and Faber.