In today’s blog, Professor Matthew Bevis discusses the many facets of Edward Lear – from poetry to travel writing and natural history drawing – and highlights the ways in which varied disciplinary approaches can shed newlight on Lear’s achievement.
‘How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!’ The pleasantry of one of the poet’s most famous lines also contains a wry smile at those who think they have got to the bottom of him. In 2014, ‘The Owl and The Pussy-Cat’ was voted the nation’s favourite children’s poem, yet how many people know that Lear later wrote a tragi-comic prose sequel to the tale?
The poet was always more than a poet; although his Book of Nonsense has never been out of print since its first appearance in 1846, that year was significant in other ways too: Lear published Illustrated Excursions in Italy, showcasing his considerable abilities as a travel writer and landscape artist, and he also took a lead role in illustrating Gleanings From the Menagerie And Aviary at Knowsley Hall, a book that has achieved a lasting place in scientific literature.
Sir David Attenborough has claimed that Lear is the world’s finest ever bird artist, and his pioneering study, Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots (1830-32) remains unsurpassed. Working from live models in the gardens at the newly-established Zoological Society, the eighteen-year-old Lear produced the book without any formal training, independent funding, or institutional support. The day after publication, he was nominated for election as an Associate of the Linnean Society. By the time his first poems came out, he was even being asked to give drawing lessons to Queen Victoria.
My AHRC project, Knowing Edward Lear, aims to bring different disciplines into conversation with each other in order to reveal new facets of Lear’s life, achievement, and influence. The poet was in touch with a diverse array of Victorian luminaries, including John Gould, Darwin, Tennyson, Ruskin, and the Pre-Raphaelites. By reading his nonsense writing alongside his natural history drawings, landscape paintings, travel books, correspondence, and diaries, I seek to situate Lear within a range of emerging medical, aesthetic, socio-political and cultural debates.
Central yet shrouded presences in his art (sexuality, religious doubt and scientific conviction, physical and mental illness) are explored in detail, and the project also charts Lear’s legacy, from the beginnings of the modernist experiment to the present moment—roughly, from T. S. Eliot’s comment to Stravinsky that Lear should be read alongside Mallarmé, to John Ashbery’s recent claim that Lear was his ‘all-time favourite poet’.
A project of this range benefits from many collaborations. Over the last eighteen months, I have visited archives across the UK and the US, consulting manuscripts and draft materials. On the back of this research, I’ve led several initiatives and events, including a public lecture at the Ashmolean Museum on connections between Lear’s literary and visual art; an interview and presentation at the Natural History Museum on how Lear’s natural-historical work feeds into his poetry; a series of blogs for Harvard University on the unrivalled resources of the Lear collection at Houghton Library; and, with my research assistant (Dr Jasmine Jagger), a series of iTunes U videos and an online exhibition exploring the relations between Lear and the Tennyson family. All these talks and series are now freely available to the public at the project website: www.knowingedwardlear.com.
Other aspects of Knowing Edward Lear have included a postgraduate symposium with the renowned children’s author Michael Rosen on the cultural values of nonsense literature, a substantial essay on Lear’s life and art for the London Review of Books, a public talk at Oxford’s Centre for Life-Writing on newly-discovered manuscript materials, and educational initiatives in various European countries—from a seminar on ‘Lear and the Comedy of Youth’ for undergraduates at the University of Vienna, to a class on nonsense and wordplay for school children in Madrid.
Much of the research feeds into a monograph to be published next year by Oxford University Press, and future plans include a major public exhibition on Lear at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham and a new edition of the poet’s correspondence. This AHRC leadership award has made it possible to showcase the remarkable concertedness of Lear’s imagination across his scientific, artistic, and literary work—and to throw fresh light on the complex relations between his public and private lives.
Professor Matthew Bevis
University of Oxford