15 OCTOBER 1977, Page 25

%humbly boy

Benny Green

Edward Lear and His World John Lehmann (Thames and Hudson £3.95) How pleasant to know Mr Lear continues to stimulate the industry of biographers, even though Mr Lehmann's book reads too much like a resume of all the others on the subject to generate much excitement; the one exception is the reference to Lear's doggish friendship with three blades called Nevill, Senior and Greening, of which he wrote in his diaries: 'What days (and what nights) we used to share so long ago as 1830 or even earlier. Greening was in those times the life of all our parties, albeit through him partly I got into bad ways. I had every sort of syphilitic disease.'

Having raised this ghost, Lehmann mildly observes that if Lear is telling the truth, his medical record shows no evidence of it, and moves on to other matters; the affair is never mentioned again. Angus Davidson, however, in the 1938 biography which remains infinitely the best book ever written on Lear, never mentioned it at all, which is, as somebody that Lear had never heard of might have put it, curioser and curioser. Lehmann also dares to mention latent homosexuality concerning Lear's love for younger men like Lushington and Baring, but once again beats a hasty retreat with the admission that there is no evidence. How tiresome for the poor biographer of will'othe-wisps like Lear and Dodgson, whose credit and debit columns have to be left open for the rest of eternity.

Although it is always.a pleasure to find some fresh excuse for spending time with Lear, surely one of the most endearing writers of all time, I think perhaps some thing has gone awry with this book, for a very interesting reason which „is nobody's fault. The dilemma confronting any compiler of an illustrated life of Lear is spectacularly defined by the front cover of this one, and never subsequently resolved. On this cover a Lear drawing of himself and the great Foss is superimposed on one of his paintings of Florence. The juxtaposition is uneasy in the same way that the buck-and-wing duet by Gene Kelly and Jerry the Mouse was uneasy, in that sympathetic elements were moving through antipathetic physical worlds. In the case of the Lear cover, of course, the unease is more fundamental, and much, much more interesting, because the two worlds have been fashioned by the same hand.

The truth is that with reference to the `... and His World' series, which leans so heavily on a judicious marriage of text and picture, Edward Lear is a special case, an artist whose lasting work has turned out to be his apparent trivia. That contradiction is not in itself insurmountable; a treatment of, say, Disraeli, might well achieve the synthesis of political log-rolling and literary dandyism because one was a distillation of the other.

But what of Lear, who not only painted with the very probity which he deliberately jettisoned in his comic verse, but actually perfected two entirely independent methods of draughtsmanship, one for the would-be landscape painter comically misled by the solemn piffle imparted to him by Holman Hunt, and quite another to accommodate the mad creatures from Limerick? No conceivable feats of psychoanalytical engineering could hope to span the chasm between the calculated disproportion of the scribbles illustrating the nonsense, and the ineffably Victorian thoroughness of the views of Athens, Constantinople and the Taj Mahal on which Lear so pathetically pinned all his hopes of a financial happy ending. That cover illustration gives the game away; in it we see the wonderfully sceptical banjo-eyes of Foss, apparently sizing up the carefully assembled view of Florence and dismissing it with a heartwarming irreverence. One recalls the terpsichorean raven, the one who so fetchingly danced a quadrille with the Old Man from Whitehaven, and wonders what that untroubled bird would have made of the psittacene sobriety of Lear's early paintings of wild life which so appealed to Lord Stanley.

One unfortunate legacy of Lear's schizoid artistic life is that no illustrated biography can help telling us two contradictory stories; there are moments when the text actually contradicts the spirit of the drawings. One other point arises out of Lehmann's text which is worth commenting on, if only to reiterate what has already been reiterated, and that is that the socalled comic poetry is so blatantly a cry for help from a man beleagured by his own diffident nature that it is astonishing that anyone could have overlooked the fact. Lehmann is excellent on this aspect, showing us how the sadness of Uncle Arty was the sadness of its creator, suggesting that the Dong in search of his Jumbly Girl is Lear in flight from loneliness, and that the Yonghy-Bonghy Bo who courted a love already spoken for has parallels with Lear's private life that the Victorians apparently never considered. Incidentally Lehmann nominates the 'they danced by the light of the moon' ending of 'The Owl and the Pussy Cat' as one of the most captivating of all endings to a poem without acknowledging that it sails ominously close to the wind of 'We'll go no more a-roving by the light of the moon', written by Lear's adolescent idol Byron. In the same way I cannot help wondering if that marvellous neologism of Lear's 'Abercrombical' is not a playful pastiche of his other hero Tennyson, who wrote of 'the vast Akrokeraunian walls'. It is at such moments of aimless speculation that the vast Gromboolian plains begin to loom.