'Hail, Snow and Desolation!'
I know little about Edward Lear, but even the most eminent experts have been forced to reconsider their conceptions because of the findings of Charles Nugent. Nugent's research deepens our understanding of Lear by drawing attention to an overlooked aspect of his career; a sketching tour of the Lake District in 1836. The unique exhibition, Edward Lear in England, will be in the musuem here at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere later this year.
Lear's letters from this period, which Nugent sampled in his talk, are charming. He greatly enjoyed his trip to the area, but it appears he didn't fail to notice the region's shortfall--which is properly speaking the opposite, an overabundance. For several weeks after his arrival he saw no lakes at all, 'water being an unpleasantry too superfluous [...] to seek for more.' One town is particularly mauled in his epistolary accounts; Kendal is 'nature's slop basin, where it always rains' and there 'babies are born with fins, webbed feet and umbrellas under their arms'. He produced a sketch of the ladies on market day bearing their weapons against the weather and titled it 'Umbrellifera' as though they were an example of local flora.
Things combined for him, ideas and things seeping into one another or simply unable to be disentangled:
The castle, Mrs. Hornby, the prison and the lunatic asylum are all balanced in my mind and are all exquisite in their own way.
[You] sit among the armour and starched ruffs till you find yourself growing stiff.
The technique might be called surrealism (I think it is a worn out word these days, and an inaccurate one for his time) but it is less method than presentation. It is not illogical to see things connected surely, but rather madness to try to trim them back. In an admiring but almost baffled phrase he described the cultivated gardens at Levens Hall with 'the grass shorn short' as 'looking like fable and nonsense'; an odd description of stately fashion by a man famed now for not making sense himself. As a young man, to 'buy his bread and cheese', Lear drew pictures of parrots.