“What to do, my Dear Fortescue, when I return to England!!??.” At 36, Edward Lear had both of the qualities that make an artist an excellent traveller — an ability to feel at home anywhere, even in Devonshire (“Lord! How it rains!”), and an insatiable curiosity about other places.
“The more I read travels the more I want to move,” wrote Lear. It is difficult, reading Lear’s lively letters and journals, to believe that this is the 200th anniversary of his birth: there is little Victorian about either the prose or the mind.
In his thirties, the “Nartist Cove Named Lear”, known for his landscapes, would become famous as the Author of the Book of Nonsense. He was a seasoned traveller; Ireland, Italy, the Lake District in England and Corfu had already drawn him away from the rains he deplored so much at home, because they brought on his “assma”. He had given Queen Victoria 12 drawing lessons, but something in his nature baulked at the comfortable life of a court painter.
He wanted to visit India, but as Corfu pulled him in and Jerusalem beckoned, Lear postponed his plans indefinitely. It stays there, off to a side — in 1857, he writes with great interest of the Mutiny, noting that The Times is probably wrong in its assessment that the fuss will blow over in a month or two. But it was only in his sixties that Lear would finally visit India, and by that time he was not just a seasoned traveller, but a most interesting one.
Lear viewed the attempts of fellow Victorians to rescue their savage brethren with a gently caustic eye. “I’ve been reading Brooke’s Borneo lately. What do you think of a society for clothing and educating by degrees the Orang Outangs?” he writes to a friend. Nor does he stick to the conventions of travel writing, as this letter from Corfu demonstrates: “I meant to have written a lot about the priests & signori, and the good peasantry, & the orange-trees, and sea-gulls, and geraniums, & the Ionian Ball & what-not, but I am too sleepy.”
He was an accommodating traveller, and one of the few places that brought out the worst in him was Jerusalem — “uniting people in a disagreeable hodgepodge of curiosity and piety.” Travelling in the region, Lear nursed an understandable dislike of “marauding Arabs”, 200 of whom relieved him of his possessions in Petra. They took “things of no use to them but I believe taken as diversions for their nasty little beastly black children”. It’s a rare, ill-tempered outburst, one of the few times when the Victorian in him rose to the fore.
He approached India with curiosity and an open mind. In a letter to Lord Abedare, written just before his Indian journey, Lear thanks him for his good wishes: “But will you not tell me if you have any special wish for one view more than another. Shall I paint Jingerry Wangerry Bang or Wizzibizzigollyworrybo?”
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Lear found a way around the heat and dust and crowds. He noticed all of it — “heat always great here stuffy puffy muffy,” he writes in his letters, and elsewhere, he complains bitterly of the political gossip and exhausting parties of “Hustlefussabad”, his name for Government House in Calcutta. The ekkas and palanquins made him wish for an extra set of bones, and he cast a fascinated eye on certain native habits: “All these devout and dirty people carry out their theory of attendance on Public Wash-up on a great scale, by flumping simultaneous into the Holy Gunga at sunrise on April 1 squash.”
But Lear found his feet when he discovered the dak bungalows, which suited him so much better than staying in private homes or in hotels. It was hard, he noted, to say to the lady of a house as you might in a dak bungalow: “Ma’am, I want tea at 5 a cold luncheon and wine to take out with me, and dinner precisely at 7, after which I shall go to bed and shan’t speak to you.”
The bungalows restored his sense of independence, and using them as staging points, Lear did some of his most beautiful work while in India, over 2,000 drawings of “old Indian temples and rivers” made as he travelled through Punjab, Bengal, fell in love with large parts of South India, explored the Ganges to his heart’s content.
The landscapes, collected in an out-of-print book by Vidya Dehejia, have almost been forgotten — but Lear’s Indian year is memorialised in “The Cummerbund”. “She sate upon her Dobie/ To watch the evening star/ And all the Punkahs as they passed/ Cried, ‘My! How fair you are!’ ”
This was, if you like, his return present to India — many travellers had commented on the language, but only Lear could have given us “gold-finned Chuprassies”, “green Ayahs” perched in trees and the vision of a monstrous, fearsome Cummerbund, second cousin to the Jabberwock. It was, in his words, “a truly bunderful” journey.