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Edward Lear, Champion of Nonsense


By Turtle Bunbury

As he plunged his quill into the inkpot, Edward Lear exhaled contentedly. It might have taken him the best part of fifty years to complete the trip, but the best-selling English nonsense poet had finally made it to his best friends’ country house in County Louth. The author of ‘The Owl & the Pussycat’ subsequently spent six weeks at the Red House outside Ardee. ‘I cannot remember to have been so happy for a long while past’, he declared afterwards.

It is often thought that Lear, who celebrates his 200th birthday on Saturday 12th May 2012, was Irish. However, while two of his closest friends were Irish, his roots were not.[i] His reputed ‘Irishness’ stems from his assocation with the ‘Limerick’, the five-line poems he popularized in the mid 19th century, such as:

There was an Old Man of Kilkenny,
Who never had more than a penny,
He spent all that money
In onions and honey,
That wayward old man of Kilkenny.

Lear didn’t actually invent the ‘Limerick’. That honour appears to belong to Aindrias MacCraith and Seán Ó Tuama, two 18th-century poets from Croom, Co. Limerick, known as the Filí na Máighe, or the River Maigue poets, who jousted in Limerick verse while guzzling in O’Tuama’s tavern. That said, the actual term ‘Limerick’ was not coined until 1896, long after Lear and the Filí na Máighe were dead.

Lear was born in 1812, the twentieth of 21 children. His father, a London stockbroker, went bankrupt when he was four. He was subsequently raised by his sister Ann, 21 years his senior, whom he adored.

His childhood was traumatic. He was plagued by asthma and epilepsy, both regarded by early 19th century society as blatant evidence that one’s soul had been seized by demons.

Unsurprisingly, he became a manic depressive, referring to his blue periods as ‘the Morbids’. But he also emerged as an extremely talented artist and, by the time he was 16, he was working as an “ornithological draughtsman” for the Zoological Society, which was soon to establish London Zoo. Lear’s first work, ‘Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots’, was published in 1830.

In 1832, he began work for the Earl of Derby, who kept a private menagerie of 1,272 birds and 345 mammals at Knowsley Hall, his country house near Liverpool.[ii]

Lear was still in Lord Derby’s employ when he made his first visit to Ireland in the summer of 1835 for the fifth annual convention of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS). This was the first time the event was hosted outside of England and took place at the Royal Dublin Society’s boardroom in Leinster House (now Dail Eireann).

Lear, who stayed at 20 Dame Street, close to Leinster House, was probably amongst a group of 500 who enjoyed a ‘dejeuner’ at the gardens of the Zoological Society, now Dublin Zoo, which had opened just four years earlier.

He was also likely to have been amongst ‘upwards of 300’ people who travelled from Dublin to Dún Laoghaire (then Kingstown) on the new railway line, the first in Ireland, which had opened a year earlier. The group was invited to admire the mighty granite piers of the new harbour at Dún Laoghaire before dining in the newly opened Marsh’s Hotel (later the Salthill Hotel, which was demolished in the 1970s).

When his BAAS duties were complete, Lear and two friends took a jaunting car on a scenic tour of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains, a fashionable journey for all gentry visitors to Ireland in the 1830s. Lear brought a pencil and some gray paper with him and seven distinctive wash-sketches which he made during the trip survive – the Great and Little Sugar Loafs, Powerscourt’s parkland, Wicklow Head, the Glen of the Downs, the round-tower at Glendalough, Lough Tay and Bray’s Main Street on market day. He is thought to have stayed at Luggala and Bellevue, the La Touche mansion at Delgany.

At Glendalough, Lear and his friends climbed a difficult ledge bare-foot, although Lear claimed he was helped around it by an old woman who then popped him into St. Kevin’s Bath.[iii]

Lear’s Irish trip evidently gave him the travel bug and in 1837 he began a three-year tour of Italy, resulting in his book, ‘Illustrated Excursions in Italy’. The newly crowned Queen Victoria was so impressed that she summoned Lear to court to give her drawing lessons.

In 1846 he published ‘A Book of Nonsense’ under the pseudonym of Derry Down Derry, complete with 72 ‘Limericks’. He would go on to create a world populated by Quangle-Wangles and Pobbles, Jumblies and runcible spoons and, of course, the owl and the pussycat who, hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, danced by the light of the moon.

Lear was back in Rome in 1847 when he met Johnny Proby, a handsome young art student from a well-established Anglo-Irish family ensconced at Glenart Castle in County Wicklow. Although Proby was still recovering from a particularly deadly strain of malaria, the 35-year-old Lear convinced the younger man to join him on a six-month tour of Sicily and southern Italy [iv]

‘My companion is a very good young man,’ Lear wrote. ‘And I am wonderfully fortunate in having such a one, as he draws constantly, and is of a perfectly good temper.’ And while Lear occasionally complained that Proby was ‘sadly imperious and contradictory at times, which is rather trying’, he later described him as ‘a perfectly excellent companion – and we now go on with perfect comfort and smoothness; indeed I now like him so much that I do not at all like to think of his leaving me.’

At length their travels ended, the latter days coinciding with the first outbursts of the revolutions that exploded across Europe in 1848. The two men lost touch thereafter but Lear was distraught when he heard of Proby’s premature death just over a decade later, claiming he had loved the dead man ‘very much’. Proby’s sister had no doubt that the Italian adventure cost her brother his life. ‘This was too great a fatigue for Johnny’, she wrote, ‘and to this journey I attribute the mischief which fixed the illness which consumed his life.’

Aside from Proby, the other Irishman in Lear’s life was Chichester Fortescue, whose family had been ensconced in Co. Louth since the mid-17th century. The two first met in Rome in 1845 and 24-year-old Fortescue – or ‘40scue’ as Lear wrote it – had been all set join Proby and Lear on their Italian tour when he was unexpectedly elected MP for Co. Louth.[v] He became a leading member of the Liberal party, rising to become Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1865.

Fortescue and Lear were extremely close and wrote to one another right up until Lear’s death. In the autumn of 1857, Fortescue persuaded Lear to visit him at the Red House, the fine mansion outside Ardee which he had effectively inherited from an uncle.

Fortescue was serving as Under-Secretary for the Colonies when Lear’s six weeks trip took place. The only other houseguests were Fortescue’s 85-year-old ‘extraordinary and delightful’ aunt and an aged governess.[vi]

By day Lear would cheerfully paint in a small studio from ‘after prayers and breakfast’ till ‘luncheon time’. He would then paint again ‘till 6’ before enjoying an hour long walk around the demesne with Fortescue.[vii]

One of their rare expeditions was to Tollymore Park in Co. Down, so ‘full of beautiful ruins and bridges and trees and roads and mills and hills and lawns and laurels’, where Lear and his friends ate blackberries and ‘amused ourselves very intellectually for a long period in shying stones at a bottle, which nobody hit’.

‘The Irish are funny people,’ observed Lear during this visit. ‘The moment one lands here it is evident that England & Ireland are very different countries in many respects. Among other odd ways of speech, the common people never by any chance say Yes or No: eg. Is it time to go? ‘It is not Sir’ or ‘It is Sir’. Have you cleaned my boots? ‘I have Sir’ or ‘I have not Sir’. When we asked at Dublin if the Scientific Association meeting was over, they said: ‘Indeed & it isn’t, but the strength of it is pretty well broken’, as if it were a revolution.’[viii]

In 1863 Fortescue was married – as her fourth husband – to the very grand and very wealthy Lady Waldegrave of Strawberry Hill. His relationship with Lear remained strong but they saw much less of one another thereafter.

Lear continued to travel extensively for the rest of his life and ultimately settled in a villa at Sanremo in north-west Italy which he named after the poet Tennyson. He twice proposed to a woman nearly fifty years his junior and twice she turned him down. He kept himself buoyant during his latter years through frequent and lengthy correspondence with friends like Fortescue. His final intimates were Giorgis, an Albanian Italian chef who could not cook, and a fat cat called Foss. He died of heart disease in 1888 and was buried in Sanremo. None of his friends were able to attend his funeral.


[i] He does mention a distant ancestor, an Usher, possibly of Galway or Waterford.

[ii] He continued to work for Lord Derby until 1836. Indeed, he wrote ‘The Owl & the Pussycat’ or his lordship’s children. And because Derby’s first name was Edward and ‘Lear’ is an anagram of ‘Earl’, many thought it was Lord Derby’s pseudonym.

[iii] Edward Lear: A Biography, By Peter Levi, page 49.

‘Seven sketches from this expedition have survived, made in pencil on grey paper, in some cases with the pencil heightened with white. It is possible to arrange them in the likely order in which they were drawn. The first shows ‘The Great and Little Sugar Loafs, from the Scalp, Co. Wicklow’, looking down from rocks at a height on the west side towards the road below and in the distance the two peaks, with the Great Sugar Loaf in particular rising to a greatly exaggerated point. A second view of the two Sugar Loafs with Powerscourt’s parkland in the foreground is rather more realistic, as is the glimpse of the Great Sugar Loaf behind a pair of dramatic tree trunks, which seems to be a view from near the Powerscourt waterfall. Levi reckons his Sugar Loaf is ‘terribly stiff’ compared to some of his later work. He also produced a ‘fine drawing’ of Wicklow Head. Lough Tay (the party may have stayed the night at Luggala), the round tower at Glendalough, a view of the Glen of the Downs inscribed ‘The Banqueting-room in the demesne of Bellevue, with a distant view of Wicklow Head’, and a view of Main Street, Bray, on market day complete the sequence. ‘

Powerscourt waterfall, Glendalough and the now almost forgotten Dargle Glen were three of the most favoured destinations. Small parties hired jaunting cars or the more substantial barouches and took a well-travelled route out via Enniskerry and back through Bray. Lear’s party seems to have followed this route. It is known that they visited Luggala and Glendalough, and that they stayed a night at

His traveling colleagues were Arthur Penrhyn Stanley [one of his greatest friends, later the fashionable Dean of Westminster] and Arthur’s uncle Penrhyn.

[iv] In a letter to his close friend Chichester Fortescue, Lear told how he and Proby had become acquainted with ‘a family of original Troglodytes’ at the Cava d’Ispica on the island’s southwest coast. ‘They are very good creatures, mostly sitting on their hams and feeding on lettuces and honey. I proposed bringing away an infant Trog, but Proby objected.’

John Joshua Proby was the eldest son and heir of Admiral Granville Leveson Proby, a veteran of the battle of Trafalgar. In 1855, the admrial succeeded as 3rd Earl of Carysfort and Proby became Lord Proby. However, just three years later, the 35-year-old bachelor died in Surrey. His sister Lady Claud Hamilton blamed his premature death on his Mediterranean tours with Lear in 1847. ‘This was too great a fatigue for Johnny and to this journey I attribute the mischief which fixed the illness which consumed his life.’ When Lear learned the news, he was distraught. He had loved John Proby ‘very much’, he wrote, and regretted that he had never been as kind to him ‘as I should have been, for which I suffer now, and some day shall perhaps suffer more.’

[v] Lear adored the way his friend Chichester Fortescue was henceforth called ‘Mimber!’

[vi] Lear started his 1857 tour at Ravensdale with Lord Clermont (Fortescue’s brother) before progressing to the Red House. He also paid a visit to Lord and Lady Clermont at Newcastle, Co. Down. [different house to Ravensdale?]

Lear loved his time at the Red House. ‘I cannot remember to have been so happy for a long while past’, he wrote. He was particularly smitten by 40scue’s ‘extraordinary and delightful’ 85-year-old aunt, Mrs Ruxton, ‘a tip top Christian multiplied by 20 and I never believed I could see so much to admire in any old lady’. She was a sister of his father, Col. Fortescue of Dromiskin. She married William Ruxton who, upon his death in 1847, left the Red House to young Chichester.

It was 1857 and the newspapers were fraught with increasingly horrific accounts of the carry on in British India where the native soldiers were apparently engaged in a massive rebellion, or mutiny, against British rule. Lear’s brother-in-law John Hamilton was in the thick of the fighting and would be dead within a year.

[vii] They were all pals with the Abercorns, Rodens and Probys – the Irish elite, the Chief Secretaries and Auditor Generals who lived in the big houses.

‘Edward Lear the Landscape Artist: tours of Ireland and the English Lakes 1835 and 1836’, Mary Davies, History Ireland, May-June 2009.

[viii] From a letter written at Red House by Lear to Lady Waldegrave, dated September 14th 1847. Lear also delighted in the story of an old Dublin woman who claimed God taxed her by giving her corns.

On 1st October 1837, he wrote to Fortescue from the Royal Hospital, Dublin. ‘I got to Dublin safely, only discompozed [sic] a little because the only person in the Railway compartment I got was a very fat woman, just exactly like a picture of Jonah’s whale I used to see when a child in a picture bible. I was horribly afraid she would eat me up & sat expecting an attack constantly, until the arrival of the train relieved me of apprehension.’ And in a nod to Fortescure’s residence outside Ardee, he writes, ‘I wish I was at Redhouse, a dispensing of butter’.