The 19th-century British writer Edward Lear has long been a favourite of audiences worldwide, children and adults alike, because of his contributions to the characteristically Victorian literary genre of nonsense.
As if to underline his work’s perhaps surprising longevity, a new biography of Lear by British writer Jenny Uglow painstakingly reconstructs his movements over what turns out to have been a rather unsettled life, among other things drawing attention to Lear’s many visits to Egypt.
Rather like his compatriot Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, it is for his children’s books, if that is what they are, that Lear is now best remembered, though by profession he was a landscape painter.
Carroll, real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was a famously introverted mathematician whose forays into Wonderland allowed him to stretch his wings in ways that might have shocked colleagues at Oxford’s Christ Church College.
Something similar may have been true of Lear, whose paintings, always competent, are nevertheless rather dull. Where he really shone was in his nonsense.
Uglow has produced a full-length biography of Lear, illustrated throughout with some of the enchanting drawings familiar from his books of nonsense as well as reproductions of his less memorable landscape pictures.
As she writes in her introduction, there has long been a tendency to diagnose Lear, like Carroll the inventor of “rule-breaking freedoms and assaults [and of] a window onto another world.” There are the “legions of the cruel inquisitive They” who people his famous limericks, according to the Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden, “the realists, the practical men, the sober citizens who are always anxious to stop you doing anything worth doing,” according to George Orwell.
Travel seemed to be one way out, and Lear spent most of his life abroad, including in environments in which he must have cut a singular figure.
Unlike Carroll, whose Wonderland was a kind of mental extension of Christ Church, Lear was not a reluctant traveler, visiting much of the Mediterranean, Turkey, the Levant, India and Egypt before finally settling in Italy.
Much of this travel was for professional purposes since Lear’s income depended on the volumes of drawings and occasional pictures that he produced for homebound Victorian audiences.
However, it may also have satisfied some other need, especially since there was so much of it. As was the case for other 19th-century European figures, for Lear travel in the Arab world, sometimes written off as orientalism, had more to do with a rejection of his country of origin than with a desire to dominate that of others.
The late 19th-century French writer Pierre Loti (Julien Viaud) had an Arab house built in Rochefort on France’s Atlantic coast, and the Victorian society painter Lord Leighton had an Arab interior installed in his mansion in north London. They may simply have preferred other company to that of their compatriots.
Lear’s first visit to Egypt was in January 1849, reaching Alexandria from Malta after almost a year spent exploring Greece, western Turkey, and Albania. He then took a cruiser down the Nile to Cairo.
In 1847 and 1848, he had lived in southern Italy and in Rome, but political instability in Italy, then a collection of mini-states, had rattled Lear and other English visitors. “An uprising in Palermo in early January 1848 spread fast over Sicily, prompting riots on the mainland,” Uglow comments. “King Ferdinand granted a new constitution for the Kingdom of Naples, and the English rushed to Rome.”
Lear was among them, but he soon decided to leave for Greece and Albania, possibly aiming to retrace the steps of the English poet Lord Byron.
He later published an account of these travels in his Journal of a Landscape Painter in Greece and Albania. By the time Lear arrived in Cairo in early 1849, he was thus already quite used to being out of England and was establishing his career as a travel writer and landscape painter.
Egypt And The Levant
Lear’s first visit to Egypt in 1849 set the pattern for subsequent ones, with most of his time spent either in planning new destinations or engaging in the sometimes exhausting travel involved in getting to them.
From Cairo, Lear set off for Sinai, where he produced watercolour sketches of the surrounding landscape. By March he was in Greece again, having abandoned plans to travel via Gaza into Palestine. In late 1853 he was back in Egypt, this time spending a good three months exploring and producing sketches of the country.
In January 1854, Lear was in Cairo attached to the colony of the English orientalist painters established in the city. He met the adventurer Sir Richard Burton, set on making the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca disguised as an Arab pilgrim, and joined a group of English tourists sailing up the Nile.
After stopping off at Luxor to admire the ancient Egyptian temples, Lear journeyed on to Aswan where he spent his time sketching on the island of Philae in the Nile. Back in London in April, he worked up some of these sketches into pictures.
Third and fourth visits to Egypt followed in 1858 and 1867, with a fifth taking place in 1872 if one counts a visit to Suez.
The 1858 visit was the most substantial, since Lear, with half an eye, Uglow says, on the profitable series of prints that the British artist David Roberts had produced of Egypt and Palestine in the 1840s, was now interested in producing his own picture album of the region. Arriving in Alexandria in March, he found there was no boat for Jaffa for a week and so spent the time in Cairo.
“Renewal of Egyptian impressions,” Lear wrote. “The immense green plains. The birds – zikzacs and white egrets, hawks, herded crows, gulls, plovers, ducks. Camels – in those long streams – asses, sheep in black masses – spotted goats – horses, oxen, buffalos.” The impressions crowded in, as did the European tourists on the steamship taking him to Palestine, where there were “English and Americans, Prussians and Austrians – 20 different languages all going to Easter in the Holy City” of Jerusalem.
In Palestine, Lear made arrangements to visit Bethlehem and Hebron, as well as the ancient site of Petra, today in Jordan, and the Dead Sea. “He would need an escort of 15 men, for a cost of 30 pounds, to include the camels,” Uglow writes.
This was expensive, but it was just as well that Lear had engaged an escort since he was attacked by bandits near Petra in April, apparently a hazard often encountered by travelers at the time.
In late 1866, Lear was again in Egypt, this time having decided to visit the country on impulse as a result of various frustrations at home.
While he found the country as enchanting as ever, Uglow says that it had undoubtedly changed, among other things by the arrival of numbers of American tourists. They went about in “dozens and scores,” outnumbering the English by “twenty-five to one.”
Lear visited the English writer Lucie Duff-Gordon, settled in Luxor, before continuing up the Nile to Aswan.
Wadi Halfa was the furthest south Lear travelled, his impressions being of a “sad, stern, uncompromising landscape – dark ashy purple lines of hills – piles of granite rocks – fringes of palm – and ever and anon astonishing ruins of oldest temples, above all the wonderful Abu Simbel,” by 1867 mostly cleared of sand.
There was a brief visit to Suez in 1872 when Lear was on his way to India, cancelled for reasons that are not very clear and driving him back to Alexandria. Otherwise, the 1867 visit was Lear’s last full-length tour of Egypt.
Uglow’s biography is some three times as long as the only other biography of Lear in English, produced by the British writer Vivien Noakes in 1967.
She has been able to provide vastly more detail, more and higher-quality illustrations, and more, and more penetrating, comments on Lear’s nonsense verse, which has recently enjoyed a critical renaissance.
The French psychoanalyst Gilles Deleuze found hidden messages in Lear’s work, for example, as did French critic Jean-Jacques Lecercle, and some of these are mentioned by Uglow.
Overall, it is hard to get a grip on Lear, maybe because he could never get a grip on himself. Noakes’s biography includes a year-by-year chronology of his travels, which reveals that he rarely spent more than a few months, or weeks, in one place.
Exhaustively chronicling the details of Lear’s travels, as Uglow does, reveals little of their significance, though in the Egyptian case it is interesting to note the extraordinary speed with which the country was opened up to foreign tourism between Lear’s first visit in 1849 and his last in 1872 a few years after the opening of the Suez Canal.
By 1872, Egypt had become almost simply another Mediterranean tourist destination, which it certainly was not in 1849. It seems a pity that Lear’s unusual personality, expressed throughout his nonsense poems, was obliged to wear such a dull and Victorian disguise.
His letters from Egypt pale in comparison to those of the French novelist Gustave Flaubert, for example, though Lear and Flaubert both visited Egypt in 1849.
Jenny Uglow, Mr Lear. A Life of Art and Nonsense, London: Faber & Faber, 2017, pp598.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Edward Lear and Egypt