Edward Lear’s nonsense verse has entered our collective consciousness via books of children’s verse. In elocution classes in school the story of the owl and the pussycat sailing to sea is a standard drill. Only a niche audience however, is aware that he worked as a brilliant natural history painter and his work on parrots is one of the most colourful and detailed explorations of the bird that zoological drawings can boast of. Lear’s health was fragile: he suffered from epilepsy ( which he referred to as the Demon), was depressive (the Morbids) and suffered from a weak respiratory system. Despite this Lear drew from an early age, worked as an illustrator for the London Zoological Society, took paid commissions to paint for wealthy patrons like Edward Stanley, the 13th Earl of Derby and finally, in a natural transition from menagerie animals to surrounding form, took up landscape painting. He travelled extensively and from the 1830s onwards visited Italy, Germany, France, Egypt Turkey, Corfu, Greece, Crete and India – the last in the 1870s during the tenure of Lord Northbrook – one of his closest friends. Perhaps Lear’s travels, like his nonsense poems and the fantastic drawings that accompanied much of his verse, were a form of release or an escape for a man crippled by a morbid shyness.
Between 1873 and 1875 Lear travelled from Bombay, up to Cawnpore and Lucknow, to Benaras, Calcutta and Darjeeling, to Simla and Kasauli, to Golconda, Coonoor and Ceylon and finally, after two wonderful years went back home. On the way he kept a journal detailing his experiences and frequently embellished it with poems and sketches – some of them have entered the canon of nonsense parody such as the Puppy of Nurkunda, the Cummerband, the Akond of Swat. Reading Edward Lear’s Indian Journal one is struck by the uninhibited narrative, switching easily from a grumpiness about train delays and dak bungalow mishaps to excited commentary about the beauty of the natural scenery. Lear’s energy was boundless as was his curiosity and fascination for natural scenery alien to his own. Sky and grass, leaf and flower burst through his descriptions as only an artist’s astute gaze can represent and transform: “Came to the Taj Mahal; descriptions of this wonderfully lovely place are simply silly, as no words can describe it at all. What a garden! What flowers!…effects of colour absolutely astonishing, the great centre of the picture being ever the vast glittering ivory-white Taj Mahal, and the accompaniment and contrast of the dark green of cypresses, with the rich yellow green trees of all sorts! and then the effect of the innumerable flights of bright green parrots flitting across like live emeralds; and of the scarlet poinciannas and countless other flowers beaming bright off the dark green! the tinker or tinpot bird ever at work; pigeons, hoopoes and, I think, a new sort of mynah, pale dove colour and gray; also squirrels, and all tame, and endlessly numerous“.
Lear travelled across India in every available mode of transport. Accompanied by his friend-cum-valet Giorgio, a fifteen year old Italian, he swept across India by train, boat and two-horse garry, by jampan and tonga, on foot or scrambling up rocks, observing all, not from the fastidious point of view of a servant of Empire but by a frank delight in the colour and vitality of the country. His painting expeditions took him everywhere, from bazaar to village rock, from ghat to plain, from Calcutta’s hustle and fuss to the haunting river at Benaras. At one point, clearly overwhelmed by the scale of India he threw down his pencil and declared, “No tiffin; off again and drew till 3.45, then gave it up-cruel folly! nothing short of a moving opera scene, can give any idea of the intense and wonderful colour and detail of these Benaras river banks.”
An interesting but oft overlooked treat found in the pages of the journal is the description of daily meals that Lear provides. Each day’s painting expedition is detailed, the impediments of the climate discussed but ever so fascinating is the way in which the food he ate is discussed. No traveller’s diary can have such a scrupulous rendering of the day’s menu as Lear’s does! Benaras is beautiful but dinner is dismal: “soup good, and a boiled fowl with rice just tolerable. Nothing else, however, at all eatable, mutton quite raw, stewed ducks hard. I may except, though, a bread and butter pudding“. In Darjeeling there was an excellent meal of fried fowl cutlets and good roast potatoes, a cold roast teal and two bottles of soda water, but in Delhi the meal was paltry- “eggs, cold lamb, bread and cold sherry“. At Simla the Irish stew was marred by too much pepper but the potatoes were delicious;”heavenly potatoes have these people, the best of any out of old England“. At Mashobra Lear approved of ” a really good sweet omelette “mommolet” as these people call it. ” And so it continues, endless matter for a food historian, a catalogue of mediocre hotel and dak bungalow food, a long roll of bad breakfasts, pleasing lunches and fortifying dinners, lines and lines describing good roast mutton, cabbage and peas, wonderful curries, “cursed pudding pro custard“, bad Irish stews and mayonnaise but tolerable rolypoly jam pudding. Claret, beer, soda water or “bilayutee pawnee” and occasionally champagne was consumed to keep the spirits unflagging.
Humour enlivens every entry. Little escapes Lear, moreover he has the ability to laugh at the follies of mankind in the manner of the greatest humorists of all time- a tone that is one of gentle chiding rather than brutal satire. To read Lear’s Indian Journal is to go back in time and re-discover the India of the past in much the same way as other travel writings of the time do. With about 2000 sketches and water colours and the journal, Lear’s last trip abroad has left future generations with a new look at India through the eyes of England’s greatest humourist.