Sara Lodge


On her book Inventing Edward Lear

Cover Interview of May 30, 2019

The wide angle

My book relates Lear’s work to the intellectual and cultural life of his age in several different ways. I investigate Lear’s anger as a religious dissenter of an Independent cast, who felt that he was ‘damned’ by the Anglican Athanasian creed, and how his determination to read the Bible in his own terms, refusing ‘parrot prayers’ and ‘priestcraft,’ shaped his life and art. Lear’s sense of exclusion and strong belief in a ‘Broad Church’ made him a Liberal by habit and disposition. This affects many of his works, from ‘The Scroobious Pip’ – a character who refuses all categorisation – to the Quangle Wangle, who offers a happy home on his enormously ‘broad’ hat to a diverse band of creatures.

I also examine Lear’s natural history watercolors and lithographs. Lear was employed by patrons including the Earl of Derby to paint rare creatures, new to science, such as the ‘whiskered yarke.’ This heightened his awareness of species categorisation and theories about how plants and animals might be related. The 1830s and 1840s were full of speculation about zoophytes, which fused plant and animal characteristics, and cartoons of people staring at creatures in the London zoo, in mirror pose. Lear’s limericks often explore animal-human relations, evoking sympathy on both sides. I was especially intrigued by Lear’s comic drawing of the ‘Owly-Pussey-catte’: a hybrid creature he invented for some friends’ children in the 1830s. It is owl above the waist and cat below it. This cartoon was created almost forty years before Lear wrote his most famous poem, ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat.’ It suggests how rooted his nonsense is in ideas about hybridity. In Lear’s darker sequel to ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat,’ the cat has committed suicide, leaving the owl to act as single parent to their offspring, who are partly little beasts and partly little fowls. The females are cats; the males are owls. Lear persistently uses interspecies pairings to think about surprising equations in sexual algebra and how impossible partnerships may sometimes be possible, despite their difficulties. Lear was himself almost certainly bisexual, and I find it touching that without exploring sexuality directly, he leads us to think ‘outside the box’ of conventional matches in his era.

One of the joys of working on Lear was the opportunity it gave me to look carefully at his paintings, many of them in private hands. As a landscape artist, Lear was open to new techniques and voluntarily joined the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, calling William Holman Hunt his ‘daddy’, Thomas Woolner his ‘uncle,’ and (naughtily) John Everett Millais his ‘aunt.’ My book explores the political and aesthetic choices involved in Lear’s Pre-Raphaelitism and links his astonishing oil of Beachy Head (1862) to Frederic Church’s painting The Icebergs (1861). Lear paints Britain as a frozen Arctic, whose political climate can no longer support him. He spent most of his adult life in Italy, partly for its sunshine, but equally for its tolerance.