James Riding

Matthew Bevis and Jonathan Watkins on Edward Lear: Moment to Moment

The gleefully unintelligible nonsense poems of Edward Lear (1812 – 1888) made him one of Britain’s favourite authors, but he was also a prolific and important Victorian artist. Obsessed with documenting his relentless travels around Europe, the Middle East and India, he created over nine thousand landscape sketches for private enjoyment, each meticulously annotated with the place, date and exact time he drew them.

The first exhibition dedicated solely to Lear’s landscape sketches, entitled Moment to Moment, is open until the 13 November 2022 at the Ikon gallery in Birmingham, co-curated by Matthew Bevis, Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford, and Jonathan Watkins, Ikon Director.

I spoke to Matthew and Jonathan about what the landscape sketches tell us about Lear’s poetry, how Lear aspired to a different audience than the one he got, and his fascination with ‘nowness’ and capturing ‘the moment’.

When did you first get the idea to do an exhibition on Lear?

Jonathan Watkins: There was a curator and art critic who’s sadly passed away, Guy Brett, who had some relation to the Lear family. He proposed an exhibition. It was more of a mix of things: a bit of nonsense drawing, a bit of natural history, a bit of what we’ve got, and then probably some more finished works. But it just didn’t get off the ground.

Is part of the challenge the sheer variety of Lear’s talents – that if you try and cover all aspects of his work in one exhibition, it might be too much or it might lose focus?

Matthew Bevis: I think it’s right that a bit of every kind of Lear actually takes away from the complexity and the strangeness of any one part of Lear. When you look at these images by themselves, there are glimmers of other Lears in them: the nonsensical, or the silly, that exist in a strange way inside landscape. 

The danger of that panoptic view of Lear is it just says ‘One man with many hats’; he’s in nonsense mode now, and we know what we think about nonsense. ‘He’s in serious mode now.’ To take one slice and stay true to that felt more interesting to me.

JW: Ikon probably isn’t big enough for a comprehensive retrospective. And I don’t know that we wanted to do another one anyway, because it had been done. 

What was the curation process like? Were there any agonising cuts you had to make?

MB: There are so many of these sketches. Stephen Duckworth has estimated that over a fifty-year period, Lear made around nine to ten thousand of these. That’s one every two days for half a century. So there’s an embarrassment of riches. But I don’t think we saw anything, thought ‘we must have it’, and then didn’t get it.

JW: For us, the really useful trip was the one to the States, to go to Yale and Houghton [at Harvard University]. That’s where the core group of works came from and then we built out from that.

MB: The thing that Harvard also did – it must have taken years to do – is they transcribed every single comment on those 3,600 images in text, because some of Lear’s handwriting has got very hard to read. It’s very searchable, and it’s fascinating in terms of certain words that crop up. 

Rather than write ‘ravine’, he will write ‘raven’. Or his shorthand for rocks is ‘rox’, or sometimes it’s not just ‘path’, it’ll be, “O, path!”. These weird talkings to the landscape as he’s doing them, or re-imagining a ravine as a bird, and so on.

What is the most relevant aspect of the exhibition to us today? The way Lear would document the same scene in rapid succession, down to the minute, feels very modern.

JW: That’s right. That drive, it’s almost like Zen, to be in the here and now. I like the idea that somebody will go to the gallery because they have an interest in contemporary art and then trip over Lear and think, “He’s not the academic Victorian landscape painter I thought he was.” This immediacy and spontaneity that Matt and I are drawing out appeals to a more modernist taste.

MB: There’s a strangeness: on the one hand, Lear’s a traditionalist. It’s relatively rare, even in the nineteenth century, this kind of linear landscape, the insistence of keeping the outlines there, not letting them become too painterly. But then, as we see towards the end, there’s an inadvertent modernity to Lear with the later splashes of colour in those Indian pictures, or maybe just an experimentalism, that’s very unusual.

JW: You are watching somebody thinking on their feet. You know how somebody reads a lecture? That’s kind of interesting, but you could have read it. But if they’re improvising, you’re watching them thinking and that’s more engaging. That’s what is happening with this exhibition.

He’s thinking on his feet, but he’s also thinking fast and slow, because he’ll then go back to his room and put a wash over it, and go over his writing with an ink pen.

MB: On some paintings, when he works them up, he will inscribe them with two dates. The date he made the first sketch, and then the one in which he’s added the colour. Sometimes they are years apart. It’s not necessarily that evening. It’s unusual, not quite knowing where to locate that image in time, the longer he sits with it.

JW: There are two drawings downstairs that he made at the same time, but he inscribed one ‘3pm’ and one ‘2:60pm’.

Did he see time differently?

MB: He certainly was fascinated by nowness, by what the moment is, whether it’s isolatable, because, for him, it’s so haunted by the past. He found the present as a particularly ghostly, weird non-moment in which to exist. The diaries capture that as well. There’s a very interesting essay by Noreen Masud recently called ‘The Sudden and the Surprising in Lear’, in which she thinks about the strangeness of things happening suddenly.

On the one hand, he wants to be immersed in the present and feels ‘I don’t want to miss out on my life as it’s occurring. I want to be completely saturated in now’, alongside this associationist side of him that can never stay still for long, that is always thinking, ‘I’m slightly feeling regretful. I didn’t do that last picture justice,’ or ‘Where will I go next?’ These two things, the need to be here and ‘I’m never here, really’, weirdly get into the pictures somehow.

Do these landscape drawings tell us anything about the nonsense? I assumed the poetry was a public performance, but you mentioned the nonsense language creeps into the annotations of his sketches, which are just for himself. So it’s almost a compulsion, or self-entertainment.

MB: Lear very rarely makes comments about his nonsense. But sometimes he says, ‘I can’t write nonsense anymore. It hangs fire’, as though it comes slightly unbidden, and is a kind of private compulsion first. Maybe this is one of the attractive things about him. Lear doesn’t really compose either words or pictures with audiences in mind. They are a way for him to talk to himself that then gets taken up.

The other way these pictures shed light on the nonsense is that they show the peculiar concertedness of his imagination. Maybe without the pictures, you wouldn’t always pick up on the melancholy of the nonsense. There’s a sadness in painting for Lear.

He sold the rights to the nonsense books for a modest sum, although they would go on to be a huge success, because he wanted to be seen as a great traditional artist. So maybe he struggled to perceive his audience.

MB: Exactly, or he aspired to a kind of traditionalism that, in fact, was out of sync with his gifts. There’s a poignancy in that, both pictorially and in the written word. 

He’s also a brilliant travel writer. His very first book, on Italy, caught the attention of Queen Victoria. He was Queen Victoria’s drawing master for a little while in 1846, which is the same year that the first nonsense book comes out.

He was doing drawing lessons for Queen Victoria, he was friends with Tennyson, but at the same time, he was always on the move. Was he an outsider or an insider?

MB: I think, in the end, he’s an outsider. But he was courted. 

He had to make a living, as well. He never went to school. His family went bankrupt when he was four or five. He lived with his sister. So there was a sense of ‘I need to work’, but there was also an immense anxiety in him about being in society, even being in a room with someone. 

He would sometimes have four or five epileptic fits a day, which are marked in the diaries with an X. There’s the sheer terror of that happening in public. That’s another reason why he’s never around for long and doesn’t want to be seen to be around for long.

JW: And he’s probably gay.

MB: That’s the other thing, his sexuality. Jenny Uglow handles it very beautifully in her book Mr Lear. The stigma of his sexuality, the stigma of epilepsy. He suffered from depression from a very young age. He called it ‘the morbids.’ He’s a loner who needs company and can’t handle company.

JW: He’s an outsider, but he doesn’t really want to be, does he? It’s such a sad life, for somebody who’s given us so much pleasure.

Edward Lear: Moment to Moment is on show at the Ikon gallery, Birmingham, until 13 November 2022. To find out more, click here.

James Riding is a UK journalist and comic author.

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