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Learical Tennysons

‘For a fuller version of this exhibition in partnership with Oxford University, please visit: www.learicaltennysons.co.uk

This exhibition is the result of an examination of the entire correspondence (around 200 letters) between Edward Lear (1812-1888) and the Tennyson family. Until now largely neglected by scholarship and unseen by the general public, this collection also contains a number of rare special-edition volumes that were passed between Lear and the Tennysons over their lifetimes. The exhibition features choice highlights from letters between Lear and Emily, as well as the many letters exchanged between Lear and Hallam (as a boy, and as a young man), and unseen letters from both Lear and Alfred.

The material is separated into four panels considering diverse yet overlapping aspects of this fascinating friendship (please click on the highlighted titles below).

Lear the Painter looks at how the Tennysons met and came to know Lear for his work as a landscape painter. Love of the Laureate considers Lear’s admiration of, and engagement with, Alfred and his poetry. Friends in Need focuses on Lear’s reliance upon the Tennysons emotionally and on the Tennysons’ turning to him for support during times of difficulty. Finally, Fooling Around highlights the playful aspect of the relationships — in poetry, letters, and life.

This exhibition seeks to provide insight into Emily Tennyson, the woman of whom Lear pronounced: ‘I should think, computing moderately, that 15 angels, several hundred of ordinary women, many philosophers, a heap of truly wise and kind mothers, 3 or 4 minor prophets and a lot of doctors and schoolmistresses, might all be boiled down, and yet their combined essence fall short of what Emily Tennyson is’ (letter to Chichester Fortescue, 12 June 1859). Emily’s letters to Lear are the most animated and sportive of all her correspondence, showing ‘a side of her that is disclosed nowhere else’ (James Hoge).

Other aspects of the exhibition focus on Lear’s musical settings of Tennyson’s poetry, and on his ‘poetical topographical’ project to illustrate Alfred’s most powerful and suggestive ‘landscape lines & feelings’ in sketches, watercolours, and oil paintings inspired by his travels abroad. After Lear died, the family published this in the form of a beautifully-bound and embossed edition signed by the laureate, as their tribute to ‘one of our oldest and most honoured and truest friends’ (Emily Tennyson, 21 Nov 1877, letter 5532).

More generally, the exhibition explores current assumptions about the relationship between Alfred and Lear, revealing how, despite their clashing temperaments, the laureate and his family loved, supported, and encouraged Lear throughout his life. Learical Tennysons re-focuses attention on these curious relationships, and outlines new avenues of enquiry for emerging scholarship.

For further links, or to contact the researchers working on this project, click on the Contact page.

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Last updated: 28 July 2017

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