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Lear the Painter

Edward Lear was introduced to the Tennysons by Franklin Lushington in 1851, when Alfred and Emily Sellwood were recently married. The previous year, Alfred had published In Memoriam and been made Poet Laureate. The letters between Lear and the Tennysons show us their mutual interest in natural landscapes, travel, and art.

As a late wedding present, Lear sent the Tennysons his illustrated landscape journals, which they received with ‘delight’ and presented proudly on their drawing room table. Alfred was so delighted by Lear’s Journal of a Landscape Painter in Albania that he wrote the lines ‘To E. L., on His Travels in Greece’ in 1851. Over the course of their friendship, the Tennysons would come to own all of Lear’s books, as well as a number of his original paintings. Lear looked for feedback and ‘remarks’ from the family on his art, and the Tennysons valued his own comments on Alfred’s poetry.

Edward Lear, undated watercolour (775 x 574mm) (LCNTE: 2011/4) on loan from the Tennyson Trustees, 1993

A. Edward Lear, undated watercolour (775 x 574mm) (LCNTE: 2011/4) on loan from the Tennyson Trustees, 1993.

This watercolour is of Monte Rosa as seen from Monte Generoso, and illustrates ‘Sunsmitten Alps before me lay’ from Alfred Tennyson’s ‘The Daisy’. Lear’s grand desire was

‘to show that Alfred Tennyson’s poetry (with regard to scenes -) is as real & exquisite as it is relatively to higher & deeper matters: - that his descriptions of certain spots are as positively true as if drawn from the places themselves, & that his words have the power of calling up images as distinct & correct as if they were written from these images, instead of giving rise to them.’ (EL to ET, 5 Oct 1852, letter 5399).

Edward Lear pencil and ink sketch of Farringford (the Tennysons’ home) 15 October 1864 (360 x 485mm) (5786)

Edward Lear pencil and ink sketch of Farringford (the Tennysons' home) 15 October 1864 (360 x 485mm) (5786)

This sketch was made during one of Lear’s long visits to see them in the Isle of Wight. The title is written twice in Greek, and there are pencil labels such as ‘brick’ ‘downs’, ‘dry leaves’, and ‘gerany-Elms’ (in visually-disguised lettering) and a giant beetle strolling over the lawn, suggesting Lear’s play with the children, Hallam and Lionel (then 12 and 10 years old).

Lear’s surviving diary entries document his many visits to the Tennysons, whom he tried to see whenever he was back in England. In June 1859, he writes in his diary: ‘the 2 darling boys & their mother are as perfect a lot as can be: altogether the recurrence of regret when I leave Faringford makes me see that I like it better than any other place now.’

In the 1860s, Alfred’s ‘moods’ and Lear’s sensitivity sometimes led to clashes and hurt feelings. Two days after this sketch, Lear writes in his diary of Alfred being ‘in one of his irritating small=captions moods. I believe no other woman in all this world could live with him for a month’. Lear did, however, return to Farringford many times after this visit.

Edward Lear, undated drawing of Hallam Tennyson (aged c.3 years old), (6332)

Edward Lear, undated drawing of Hallam Tennyson (aged c.3 years old), (6332).

Lear possibly made this pencil drawing in October 1855, during a visit to the family, the 3 or 4 days of which he told Emily ‘were the best I have passed for many a long day’ (letter 5431). Although the two boys looked similar and there are few photographs of them, Lionel’s hair was wilder and curlier. In her letters, Emily provides funny depictions of the young boys’ behaviour around the house, while Hallam himself wrote playful letters to Lear as a youth, and later, as a ‘very tiptoppious cove’.

Alfred Tennyson, letter to Edward Lear, 8 June 1855 (5414), corresponding over an invitation to his studio. ‘Don’t bore yourself to give a dinner’ he adds; ‘I love you all, as well, undined’

Alfred Tennyson, letter to Edward Lear, 8 June 1855 (5414), corresponding over an invitation to his studio. ‘Don’t bore yourself to give a dinner’ he adds; ‘I love you all, as well, undined’

In response to Lear’s invitation to ‘go up the Nile quietly’ while looking at his pictures of Egyptian sunsets, Alfred responds in a previous letter that he ‘should be happy to make friends with the Nile’. He made regular visits to Lear’s studios whenever he was in London, often remarking on his ‘very fine’ pictures.

 

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Last updated: 1 August 2017

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