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Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense

4.26  ·  Rating details ·  124 ratings  ·  41 reviews
Acclaimed historian Jenny Uglow brings us a fascinating and beautifully illustrated biography of Edward Lear, full of the colour of the age.

Edward Lear lived a vivid, fascinating, energetic life, but confessed, 'I hardly enjoy any one thing on earth while it is present.' He was a man in a hurry, 'running about on railroads' from London to country estates and boarding steam
Hardcover, 608 pages
Published October 5th 2017 by Faber & Faber
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Average rating 4.26  · 
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Michael Perkins
Jun 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
I only knew Edward Lear for his nonsense rhymes, which we recited to our children when they were small. They giggled constantly. But it turns out that Lear was an accomplished painter, as well. His subjects were landscapes, birds, and other animals. He traveled extensively in pursuit of his live subjects, although not in the wild but in aviaries and zoos.

Lear had many friends, as well as a large social set. He was a popular guest because of his humor and his musical talents. Paradoxically, howe
Oct 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I just finished reading “Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense”. It is a beautiful book that has lavish illustrations and quotations. This book would make a great holiday gift.

Edward Lear (1812-1888) is best known for his nonsense rhymes, written primarily for children but with an appeal across all ages. Some of his better-known works are: “The Owl and the Pussycat”, “A Was Once an Apple Pie”.

Lear was a seeker and taxonomist, observing and recording plants and foreign vistas as he travelled widel
Nov 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Hope my earlier notes will be saved as private, but I am at a loss when I don't have highlighting available with kindle format. I borrowed this book from my library. It is a beautiful $45 book, and if one admires Edward Lear, it would be a great reference book to own. The writer does a very thorough and excellent job without including negative viewpoints of Lear's work.
It is a happy/sad but thoroughly detailed account of Edward's young life through to the end. A restless and complex man, he liv
Sep 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Just a brilliant bio of my favorite Victorian writer/illustrator. The language, the images, will
make you laugh. The life story will make you cry - and applaud.
Daniel Sevitt
Jan 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: auto-biography
Bought this because of the good reviews and the absolutely gorgeous presentation. It's a beautiful book to hold and flick through with lots of illustrations and reproductions. As a biography, it's about as straightforward a history of a life as it's possible to imagine. That's not necessarily a criticism, but, as with any life, there are longueurs and repetitions. The analysis of Lear's nonsense is deft and illuminating (like the Dong's nose) and probably the best thing here. Mostly, though, I j ...more
Peter Tillman
Adam Gopnik's wonderful review-essay at the New Yorker. Check out the opening illo: Lear & his cat!

"We find, in Lear, the immersive, overstuffed feel common to all Victoriana—and here is Victoria herself, getting a drawing lesson from him. Because Lear was lodged far more securely in Victorian society than the donnish Carroll was, his art mirrors and parodies it more precisely. Carroll was making jokes about Oxford; Lear about London and the world."

Re: Don
May 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography, literature
What an endearing man, what an enjoyable biography! This wonderfully written, beautifully illustrated biography tells the life history of Edward Lear, known principally to me as the author of the poem, The Owl and The Pussycat. That poem is well known and was judged to be England’s favorite poem. It is certainly one of mine.
But there was so much more: Lear’s nature illustrations, his travels and gorgeous scenic drawings and paintings, his limericks, his alphabets, his gift for friendship. All o
Stephen Goldenberg
Jul 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
If you’re a fan of Edward Lear’s nonsense poems and drawings (and who isn’t?) then this biography is well worth reading even though it may be a bit too comprehensive for some. What I hadn’t realised was just how good a landscape painter Lear was, as well as being an inveterate world traveler and travel writer. Jenny Uglow covers all of this in great detail but she also shows us a conflicted Victorian man who struggled with his suppressed homosexuality and an unhappy childhood. He suffered from a ...more
Colin Mitchell
Nov 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Mr Lear by Jenny Uglow.
It is difficult to say much more than this is the best book that I have read this year. 5 stars.
Best of all, the book generously flows with Lear's own work, both art and nonsense. Every chapter starts with a poem and sketch and goes on to pack in his landscape paintings and more poems. Uglow's biography honors Lear's contradictions and complexities. She engagingly brings this reclusive but gregarious, driven but funny man back to life. We have him singing away at the piano, studying animals, making adventurous and arduous travels. I miss him now that I've closed the book.
Stumbled across this on the New Books shelf at one of my public library's branches while there for a meeting. I knew next to nothing about Edward Lear, certainly not as an artist. Such an excellent example of biography!

Uglow traces Lear's life, mostly chronologically, from his middle-class upbringing in London fraught with family economic misfortunes and rather distant parents, to his life as a traveling artist and writer. Best known for his nonsense poetry (The Owl and the Pussycat) and limeric
Jan 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Mr Lear is a beautiful and lavishly presented book. The hard cover is stunning with a picture of one of Lear’s parrots and the title “Mr Lear” in gold. The pages of the book contain many colour plates of Lear’s art together with reproductions of his letters and cartoons.
Jenny Uglow has written a magnificent detailed and comprehensive biography of Edward Lear drawing on his correspondence with his vast network of friends, relations and patrons. Uglow tells us of his friendships with Lord Derby, t
Mar 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
This was fun—lots to Edward Lear besides his limericks, as it turns out, and Uglow is such a solid biographer she really brings the times and circumstances into vivid focus. Ah, for the life of an itinerant mid-19th-century artist! Lear traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia to paint and write and read, hung out with English peers and the likes of Alfred Tennyson, mooned over being alone but threw himself into his work with fervor, and had an enormous social circle. The book is long and ...more
V. Briceland
I think it's fair to say that Edward Lear—painter, close observer of avian wildlife, nonsense illustrator, limerick-ician, and author of enduring verse—lived a placid life.

Lear managed to hide his epilepsy for his many decades without ever having a seizure in public. Though he yearned for the sensual touch of handsome young men (including one he seemed to have traveled with for several years before learning that the lad had a wife and family tucked away elsewhere), he never sullied his good rep
Gayla Bassham
A sad and lovely biography, with a couple of side characters (his manservant Giorgio and his friend and sometime sweetheart Gussie) whose lives could be O'Henry stories in and of themselves. Lear is best known for his brilliant nonsense such as "The Owl and the Pussycat" but his life as a gay man in Victorian England seems to have been lonely and frustrating. Like so many beloved creators, his life, is his own eyes, was not quite fulfilling.

The biography isn't perfectly paced -- six hundred pag
Feb 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Most of us know Edward Lear as the writer of nonsense verse. “The Owl and the Pussycat” is the first poem I ever learned by heart and even though I learned a few more in years closer to now than then I still remember more of it than I do of any of the others. But in his lifetime Lear was known for other things first. As a teenager and young man he became England’s Audubon, doing brilliant paintings of birds and other wildlife for zoos and wealthy patrons with private zoos and from stuffed exotic ...more
i loved this book. It is printed on very good paper and has wonderful reproductions of his paintings. I had no idea he was so good as a landscape painter, let alone that he gave lessons to Queen Victoria.
I was not surprised by the sadness and loss in his life, as seems to be common with many artists and writers of his day. (Tennyson, e.g.)
I was caught up in the nonsense and the fun cartoons as well. Really a very enjoyable read.
What a prodigious output Lear made in his lifetime of creating thousands of artworks: drawings, paintings, etchings; and writing poems, songs, and all manner of nonsense. He also wrote dozens of letters a day.

As a young boy, his parents left him in the care of his kind oldest sister, Anne, because they were too occupied with the other dozen or so surviving children of their brood. However, their finances were rocky, so young Edward learned to make his living in his teens, working for Gould, a ta
Sep 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is by far the best biography I have ever read, and considering I have read many, that is high praise. I had read Levi's biography many years ago and I hardly remember anything, it left such a weak impression. What I do remember is finding it a boring book and being a bit disappointed, considering how much I love Lear.

Uglow's writing, by contrast, is like reading a good novel—e.g. you keep on hoping Lear will marry Gussie even though you know he won't in the end. Uglow brings Lear to life a
Jun 19, 2018 rated it liked it
I read this on a whim, after reading a short review in the New Yorker. My interest wasn’t intense but it is a well-written and absorbing study. What tickled my interest was that although he is best known today for his nonsense books, his main claim to fame in his own time was as a superb landscape painter and travel writer. You get a strong, sometimes intimate sense of him throughout the book. Enjoyable.
Laura Spira
Nov 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is the most beautiful book I have read for a long time, which certainly does justice to the work of the subject, wonderfully reproduced. But it is very heavy... Meticulously researched, Jenny Uglow also infuses the text with her own enthusiasm for Lear, producing an excellent and sympathetic portrait. Highly recommended to fans of Lear and anyone who relishes fine biography.
Shelly Dennison
Jan 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Jenny Uglow really does have the knack of producing fascinating comprehensive readable biographies! This is a beautifully illustrated and produced account of Lear's life - I was aware of him as a nonsense poet so the big eye opener for me was his career as an artist from the observational work with birds and animals to landscapes in Europe and beyond.
Sep 30, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art, bios
Excellent treatment of an artist more renown for his limericks than his paintings. A bit slow going as Lear tries to settle on a career and a home. The strange and sad life of a man who repressed his sexuality and wandered through much of Europe, Middle East and India, painting and drawing everything. I enjoyed learning about life in Edwardian-Victorian England.
Aug 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Fantastic read, interesting, informative and enlightening. Lots of factoids and detail on the nonsense writers life who did more than The Owl and the Pussycat and the prose this is written allows the layperson to find out about all this extra ever easier.
Nov 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is everything a biography should be:

all things fair
With such a pencil such a pen
You shadow'd forth to distant men
I read and felt that I was there
Jun 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
I only knew Lear's nonsense verse, turns out he was an excellent landscape painter and intrepid traveler, also a great friend especially to children
Aug 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
Beautifully compiled and well researched
Dec 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
I have loved the limericks and nonsense rhymes of Lear since I was young, but I didn't realise that there was much more to Lear until recently, when I saw a painting of his hanging in a corner of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. It was enchanting. After reading Uglow's fulsome biography I am intent on finding copies of his illustrated travel diaries. Uglow gives Lear a thorough workout. Lear roamed through Europe, particularly Italy, Greece and the Mediterraneans Balkans, in the early to mi ...more
Feb 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
A long and dense read, obviously very well researched, with lots of information on Lear’s life, travels, art and writing, revealing a very sad man. Despite (or, to a degree, because of) his many deep friendships his life seems to have been unfulfilled, possibly because of uncertainties as to his sexuality. The sequence where he thinks he wishes to marry is excellently written and tremendously sad. I had never realised how much of an artist he was, but even his relative success in that field is m ...more
Quincy Bragg
Jan 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
A very detailed biography of Edward Lear. If, like me, you are a fan of his nonsense writings this book will give you more insight into the origins of those works. In his lifetime he was best known as a painter of birds, plants, and landscapes. This book depicts a man constantly striving to make ends meet as an artist in mid-19th-century Britain while at the same time feeling himself to be an outsider. He struggled to be part of middle class society but remained a lifelong visitor rather than a ...more
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Jennifer Sheila Uglow OBE (née Crowther, born 1947) is a British biographer, critic and publisher. The editorial director of Chatto & Windus, she has written critically acclaimed biographies of Elizabeth Gaskell, William Hogarth, Thomas Bewick and the Lunar Society, among others, and has also compiled a women's biographical dictionary. ...more

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42 likes · 19 comments
“Like many boys unhappy at school Lear built an inner life and learned that one way to be accepted was to make people laugh, to become an amiable buffoon. While he fretted about being ‘half-educated’ he was glad, he said later, to have escaped the straitjacket of conventional teaching, as so many of those who had been laboriously and expensively educated lost their learning, ‘& remain like Swift’s Stullbruggs – cut & dried for life, making no use of their earlier-gained treasures: – whereas I seem to be on the threshold of knowledge’.” 1 likes
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