Edward Lear was the twentieth of twenty-one children born to Jeremiah and Ann (Skerrett) Lear. Financial difficulties led to the dispersal of the family; although the Lears were later reunited, from 1816, Edward was looked after by his oldest sister, Ann. She was devoted to him and encouraged his interest in reading and painting, but the nearsighted, homely, rather morbid child brooded over being rejected, as he saw it, by his mother. His diary alludes mysteriously to another early trauma, perhaps a sexual assault. His inclination to isolate himself grew after the onset of epilepsy (he called it his “demon”) when he was five years old. He always felt that he was not like other people.
At fifteen, he was earning his own living as a draftsman. Within five years, his skill in drawing birds brought him to the attention of Lord Stanley (later the thirteenth earl of Derby), who invited him to Knowsley to make drawings of his private menagerie. There he made acquaintances who would become lifelong patrons and began to create comical verses and drawings to amuse his host’s children.
In 1837, the earl sent him to Italy to recover his health and to study landscape painting. From that time, England was no longer his permanent home. Lear traveled throughout the Mediterranean world and lived in several places, explaining his wandering by saying that his health required a temperate climate, that he needed to make sketches as “studies” for his oil paintings, and that he must support himself by making his work available to wealthy tourists. His restlessness also suggests that he was searching for, and perhaps trying to avoid, something: an all-consuming interest.
Amazingly industrious even by Victorian standards, Lear generally spent most of his day sketching or painting; in leisure hours, he read widely and taught himself a half-dozen languages. Hard work seemed to help ward off depression and epileptic attacks but did not prevent his being lonely. For thirty years, his only constant companion was his Albanian servant, Giorgio Kokali, to whom Lear showed extraordinary kindness and loyalty. While busily preparing one set of illustrations for a travel book and another for a volume of natural history, he decided to publish the series of limericks he had begun at Knowsley. His painting gave him less satisfaction than his nonsense verse, which he wrote for the children of friends and for other youngsters he met in hotels and aboard ships. His verse became a vehicle for self-expression, while painting all too often meant drudgery and frustration. Upon receiving a legacy at the age of thirty-seven, he studied for a time at the Royal Academy, as if hoping to win recognition as a serious artist. Lear apparently had small regard for the watercolor drawings he produced by the hundreds: They were “pot-boilers” and “tyrants” that required much time yet brought little money. Although he sometimes sold large landscapes in oil and received modest sums for his books, he often worried about his finances and had to rely on the patronage of wealthy friends.
Lear tried to be independent, but he constantly suffered from loneliness. He maintained a voluminous correspondence with scores of friends, sometimes rising early to write as many as thirty-five letters before breakfast. Occasionally he expressed wonder that “this child,” an odd, moody fellow, should have so many friends. He confided in a few—Chichester Fortescue, Franklin Lushington, and Emily Tennyson (his ideal woman)—but even to them he could not reveal his dark memories or speak of his “demon.” More than once he considered marriage but could never bring himself to propose, despite evidence that Augusta Bethell would have accepted him. Terrified of rejection, this charming and lovable man told himself and his confidants that he was too crotchety, ugly, poor, and sickly to be a good husband. Another impediment of which he may have been conscious was his homosexuality. His...
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