A VICTORIAN ESCAPIST
Edward Lear. By Angus Davidson. (John Murray. ass.)
IT may be from humility, it may be from a kind of arrogance, but, whatever the reason, it is notable that specialists tend to minimise the popularity of their studies, and I think that Mr. Davidson does the educated Englishman an injustice by implying, as he does imply more than once in his admirable and wholly delightful biography, that Edward Lear is known only as the author of Nonsense. He was, in his day, a social lion of the gentlest sort ; a man as discriminating and attentive in his friendships as only a bachelor has the time to be ; he endeared himself to numerous quite distinct groups, to the Court, the Stanleys, the Barings, the Tennysons, the Holman Hunts and the cosmopolitan circles of Rome and Canns ; his name appears frequently in their published letters and journals, always with the respect due to a serious artist. Moreover he was so prolific in his career as a topo- graphical draughtsman—he brought back fifteen hundred sketches from a rigorously curtailed trip to India—and enjoyed so wide a vogue—though greater perhaps among the givers of wedding presents than among collectors—that most of us at one time or another, in country house or cathedral lodgings or public gallery, must have been in the presence of examples of his work ; perhaps we failed to recognise the identity of the name ; perhaps—more likely—we did not pause to look ; these drawings easily escape notice ; they arc so unemphatic in colour, merely tinted in symbolic way, they hung so unobtrusively on the walls, merging into their slightly foxed mounts, dusty gilt frames and faded wall-paper. But those who have had the curiosity to look closer, or have had their attention called to them by their owners, will have realised that though they are of no particular importance, they are immeasurably superior to the ordinary run of mid-Victorian album-landscape and that they excel in the very qualities which one would least have expected from the author of the nonsense poems. They are self-effacing, highly competent, accurate, prosaic. The oil paintings are less attractive—mere pompous restatements of the drawings—and Mr. Davidson confirms what one suspected, that Lear was unhappy in the medium ; he lived in an age when it was a matter of professional pride to exhibit oil paintings at the Royal Academy ; that was the dividing line between the amateur and the real artist ; and Lear, so complete an artist in his imaginative work, was, ironically enough, obliged painfully to struggle with an unsympathetic technique. That he succeeded as well as he did is evidence of robust moral stamina.
Most of us had formed an impression of Lear which approxi- mates to that of all but the most intimate of his contemporaries— twinkling eyes behind gold-rimmed apectacles, a wistful smile behind the whiskers, a fund of puns and the art of pleasing children—but for those who cared to look deeper there was always an underlying problem ; how was it that a man who possessed in a high degree the gifts of genuine poetic expres- sion was content to limit them to nursery rhyming ? Mr. Davidson has provided an answer and at the same time the opportunity for recalling from disrepute a word which, if judiciously used, is of real value in criticism. A school of critics who see no reality except in the raw materials of civilisa- tion have popularised the jargon-word " escapism " as a term to condemn all imaginative work ; they hold that the only proper concern of man is buying, selling and manufacturing and the management of these activities in an equitable way ; that anyone who interests himself in other things is trying to escape his obligations and his destiny. In consequence of this stultifying misuse a useful word is in danger of being lost as soon as it was born. For " escapism" does represent a reality, and Lear gives a classic example.
His disability, now recorded for the first time, was not unique ; it was the disability of feeling unique. His child- hood was unfortunate. He was the youngest son of a huge family, brought up at first in affluence, suddenly struck with disgrace and poverty. As an impressionable little boy he saw his home broken up ; his father imprisoned ; his sisters suffering the equivalent of sale into slavery, being packed off as governesses where they wilted and died, four in four months ; other sisters emigrating to the antipodes ; a brother becoming a clergyman and marrying a negress ; he himself condemned to a lonely childhood in the care of a spinster sister who, alone, had a small subsistence. Worse than this he suffered all his life from slight, but very frequent, epileptic seizures. The loneliness engendered by this upbringing was accentuated by his later career. He had immense gifts of social charm but he made and kept his new friends as an oddity, someone delicious but altogether singular whom they petted and cossetted and enjoyed but always as some- one essentially different from themselves. His emotions, too, became centred on friendships with other men which, in their nature, were inconclusive and disappointing. The friends liked him, lent him money, bought his pictures, asked him to stay, took him travelling,- but they married and made careers for themselves and Lear was left constantly baffled and estranged. His feelings towards women were always tepid and the grave objections of his own ill-health and precarious fortune stood in the way of marriage. He was haunted, too, by a conviction, for which there seem to have been some grounds, that he was physically unprepossessing.
. Social success was important in the career he had chosen ; he sold his pictures largely on his personal popularity ; so he drifted in a wide and frivolous social life while he yearned for privacy and intimacy. He escaped from his frustration in the company of children and in writing for their amusement poetry that is supremely aloof from his material life. Alice is prosaic in comparison to Mrs. Discobolos. Without abandoning all intention of communication it would be impossible to remove oneself further. Mr. Davidson's chapter on "Lear as Poet and Painter" is, perhaps, the best part of a valuable book. It is hard to see how he could have done his work better. The bio- graphy is orderly and elegant ; the illustrations are chosen tactfully—more than once with brilliance—the criticism, both explicit and implicit, sound and suggestive : an admirable book.