Today might be the birthday (1812) of Edward Lear or it might be tomorrow. The records are not clear. A perfect date for a man who dealt in absurdity all of his life, and also for my blog which now deals in celebrations that move around the calendar.
Lear was born in North London, the second to last of twenty-one children (and youngest to survive) of Ann Clark Skerrett and Jeremiah Lear. He was raised by his eldest sister, Ann, 21 years his senior. Owing to the family’s limited finances, Lear and his sister left the family home and lived together when he was aged four. Ann continued to act as a mother for him until her death, when he was almost 50 years of age.
Lear suffered from lifelong health afflictions. From the age of six he suffered frequent grand mal epileptic seizures, and bronchitis, asthma, and during later life, partial blindness. Lear experienced his first seizure at a fair near Highgate with his father. The event scared and embarrassed him and consequently he felt lifelong guilt and shame for his condition. His adult diaries indicate that he always sensed the onset of a seizure in time to remove himself from public view. When Lear was about seven years old he began to show signs of depression, possibly due to the instability of his childhood. He suffered from periods of severe depression which he referred to as “the Morbids.”
Lear was already drawing “for bread and cheese” by the time he was aged 16 and soon developed into a serious draughtsman employed by the Zoological Society and then from 1832 to 1836 by the Earl of Derby, who kept a private menagerie at his estate Knowsley Hall. Lear’s first publication, published when he was 19 years old, was Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots in 1830. He was considered one of the greatest ornithological artists of his era, compared favorably with John James Audubon.
Among other travels, he visited Greece and Egypt during 1848–49, and toured India and Ceylon during 1873–75. While traveling he produced large quantities of colored wash drawings in a distinctive style, which he converted later in his studio into oil and watercolor paintings, as well as prints for his books. His landscape style often shows views with strong sunlight, with intense contrasts of color.
Between 1878 to 1883 Lear spent his summers on Monte Generoso, a mountain on the border between the Swiss canton of Ticino and the Italian region of Lombardy (very near where I live now). Throughout his life he continued to paint seriously. He had a lifelong ambition to illustrate Tennyson’s poems; near the end of his life a volume with a small number of illustrations was published.
Lear played the accordion, flute, and guitar, but primarily the piano. He composed music for many Romantic and Victorian poems, but was known mostly for his many musical settings of Tennyson’s poetry. He published four settings in 1853, five in 1859, and three in 1860. Lear’s were the only musical settings that Tennyson approved of. Lear also composed music for many of his nonsense songs, including “The Owl and the Pussy-cat,” but only two of the scores have survived, the music for “The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò” and “The Pelican Chorus.” While he never played professionally, he did perform his own nonsense songs and his settings of others’ poetry at countless social gatherings, sometimes adding his own lyrics (as with the song “The Nervous Family”), and sometimes replacing serious lyrics with nursery rhymes.
Lear travelled widely throughout his life and eventually settled in San Remo, on the Mediterranean coast, in the 1870s, at a villa he named “Villa Tennyson.”
Lear was known to introduce himself with a long pseudonym: “Mr Abebika kratoponoko Prizzikalo Kattefello Ablegorabalus Ableborinto phashyph” or “Chakonoton the Cozovex Dossi Fossi Sini Tomentilla Coronilla Polentilla Battledore & Shuttlecock Derry down Derry Dumps” which he based on Aldiborontiphoskyphorniostikos.
After a long decline in his health, Lear died at his villa in 1888 of heart disease, from which he had suffered since at least 1870. Lear’s funeral was said to be a sad, lonely affair by the wife of Dr. Hassall, Lear’s physician, none of Lear’s many lifelong friends being able to attend. Lear is buried in the Cemetery Foce in San Remo. On his headstone are inscribed these lines about Mount Tomohrit (in Albania) from Tennyson’s poem To E.L. [Edward Lear], On His Travels in Greece:
all things fair.
With such a pencil, such a pen.
You shadow forth to distant men,
I read and felt that I was there.
Lear had a longstanding friendship with an Albanian chef, Giorgis, whom he described as an excellent friend and a thoroughly unsatisfactory cook. So I won’t give you an Albanian recipe. Instead here are some of Lear’s own “recipes.” They should appeal to Lear fans.
THREE RECEIPTS FOR DOMESTIC COOKERY
TO MAKE AN AMBLONGUS PIE
Take 4 pounds (say 4 1/2 pounds) of fresh Amblongusses, and put them in a small pipkin.
Cover them with water and boil them for 8 hours incessantly, after which add 2 pints of new milk, and proceed to boil for 4 hours more.
When you have ascertained that the Amblongusses are quite soft, take them out and place them in a wide pan, taking care to shake them well previously.
Grate some nutmeg over the surface, and cover them carefully with powdered gingerbread, curry-powder, and a sufficient quantity of Cayenne pepper.
Remove the pan into the next room, and place it on the floor. Bring it back again, and let it simmer for three-quarters of an hour. Shake the pan violently till all the Amblongusses have become a pale purple colour.
Then, having prepared a paste, insert the whole carefully, adding at the same time a small pigeon, 2 slices of beef, 4 cauliflowers, and any number of oysters.
Watch patiently till the crust begins to rise, and add a pinch of salt from time to time.
Serve up in a clean dish, and throw the whole out of the window as fast as possible.
TO MAKE CRUMBOBBLIOUS CUTLETS
Procure some strips of beef, and having cut them into the smallest possible slices, proceed to cut them still smaller, eight or perhaps nine times.
When the whole is thus minced, brush it up hastily with a new clothes-brush, and stir round rapidly and capriciously with a salt-spoon or a soup ladel.
Place the whole in a saucepan, and remove it to a sunny place, — say the roof of the house if free from sparrows or other birds, — and leave it there for about a week.
At the end of that time add a little lavender, some oil of almonds, and a few herring-bones; and cover the whole with 4 gallons of clarified crumbobblious sauce, when it will be ready for use.
Cut it into the shape of ordinary cutlets, and serve it up in a clean tablecloth or dinner-napkin.
TO MAKE GOSKY PATTIES
Take a pig, three or four years of age, and tie him by the off-hind leg to a post. Place 5 pounds of currants, 5 of sugar, 2 pecks of peas, 18 roast chestnuts, a candle, and six bushels of turnips, within his reach; if he eats these, constantly provide him with more.
Then, procure some cream, some slices of Cheshire cheese, four quinces of foolscap paper, and a packet of black pins. Work the whole into a paste, and spread it out to dry on a sheet of clean brown waterproof linen.
When the paste is perfectly dry, but not before, proceed to beat the Pig violently, with the handle of a large broom. If he squeals, beat him again.
Visit the paste and beat the pig alternately for some days, and ascertain that if at the end of that period the whole is about to turn into Gosky Patties.
If it does not then, it never will; and in that case the Pig may be let loose, and the whole process may be considered as finished.