Mr Lear by Jenny Uglow

Mr Lear by Jenny Uglow

Title: Mr Lear 

Author: Jenny Uglow

Review by Neil Murray

There was an old man with a look,

Who said “My, what a gargantuan book!

I think that its size

Will surely squash flies.”

That saturnine man with a look.


Make no mistake, this is a big book: nearly 600 pages including introduction, notes, references and index and I, for one, am grateful.

You see, I was brought up on Edward Lear, along with Kipling, Longfellow, Beatrix Potter, Hugh Lofting, Antony Buckeridge, Ronald Searle, Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton and several other writers of classic children’s stories.  I loved Lear.  He introduced me to the limerick, a verse form I still adore, and his works soundly disproved the rule that:-

The limerick packs laughs astronomical,

Into space that is quite economical.

But the good ones I’ve seen,

So seldom are clean,

And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

However, like (I suspect) many others, I only knew Lear for his verse including, of course, The Owl And The Pussycat and also his marvellous Latin taxonomy of strange beings, flowers and things. My younger brother and I used to salivate over Mincepiesia Deliciosa.

Uglow shows, to my surprise and eventual delight, that although Lear is best remembered for his verse and caricatures, he was much, much more than a wordsmith and cartoonist. He was, in fact, a supremely talented artist whose works (occasionally) sold for hundreds of pounds, and this in nineteenth century Britain. He was certainly the best painter of birds of his generation, and in the opinion of Uglow and others, was in some respects the equal of America’s of John James Audubon. The two knew each other, incidentally.

He was a talented musician and a supremely charming man. Tall, gangling, with a large nose, domed head and large round spectacles, he was an unlikely but perennial guest in many of the great houses of time.

Fabulous company

As Uglow says, his era was probably the last in which artists could thrive under a rich patron, but Lear was welcomed into so many households because he was fabulous company. Even as a young man, he was muddling up verse forms and nonsense in a way that bewitched adults and children alike, illustrating them with sketches whose economy of line and precision still astonishes, and then, in the evenings, regaling the assembled after-dinner company with his songs and music. In the fusty mid-nineteenth century, you really wanted a Lear around.

Uglow relates how, early in his life – oh yes, he was commissioned to paint birds (parrots, mostly: he loved parrots) for London Zoo while barely out of his teens – for one of the landed gentry, and was installed in a very comfortable room in the servants’ quarters. His Master’s Children were late for dinner and, when asked why, said that they had been having so much fun with Mr Lear. He was promptly reinstalled in the best bedroom they could find, and almost became part of the family. Wise move.

There was a darker side to Lear. He suffered from a form of epilepsy, was always worrying about money, and had a sort of romanticised view of Love that was never consummated. Uglow speculates that he was homosexual and that, at one point, he might have caught a venereal disease. There is no evidence for this: just a hint, although he was certainly devoted to a close friend all his life.  Frankly, this is the only bit of Uglow’s wonderful biography that I dislike. It strikes a slightly jarring note and I really don’t give a damn what anyone’s sexual orientation is.

Elsewhere, Uglow is careful to stress that Lear’s interest in children differed from the slightly suspect interest that Lewis Carroll showed in one Alice Liddell. No, Lear simply had a delight in children, wished he had some of his own, and they reciprocated.


This book is well illustrated by colour and black and white plates of Lear’s paintings and drawings, and they are staggeringly good. A lot of his drawings he sold for between twenty and fifty pounds; still a sizeable sum in those days. He would sometimes ask upwards of five hundred pounds for his paintings, and into four figures for his really large ones, few of which (sadly) have survived. His problem was that a lot of his customers regarded payment as something that could be almost infinitely delayed, while his printers and engravers took a different view.

For this reason, Lear was delighted when the publisher of his Book Of Nonsense, George Routledge, tarried paying Lear his royalties and Dalziel, his engraver, was pressing him for payment. Lear “crowed with delight” when Routledge agreed to pay Lear £200 for all the rights, but “Routledge had the last laugh: the book sailed through twenty-four editions in Lear’s lifetime. In different forms, it has never been out of print.”

It is so, so rare to come across someone for whom nobody ever, but ever, had a bad word. Edward Lear was one of that rare breed. It makes you wish you could have met him in person. What a man. What a biography. I’m re-reading it now.

Review by Neil Murray

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