Over the Land and Over the Sea, Edward Lear

Edward Lear, a travel writer? Who knew? Famed for his books of nonsense poetry and accompanying doodles, Lear’s love was in fact lanscape painting and in the mid-19th century he travelled Europe and beyond in search of scenes suitable for his oils and watercolours. This collection brings together the familiar nonsense and the less familiar accounts of some of these adventures.

The introduction by academic Peter Swaab, is well worth reading, providing an accessible link between the two parts of the book. It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to link Lear’s interest in travel with his particular brand of poetry. Swaab also explains at the start of each travel account something of the background to each trip, which is extremely useful.

In some of his earlier writing, it is notable that Lear seems less interested in the people he encounters than in the animals, who tend to receive the anthropomorphic adjectives; so we have the “meditative green frogs”, and the “pensive chirping” of a chicken.

Undoubted echoes of his poetry are scattered through these extracts; although as he gets older (the writing spans 25 years) the people assume a more pivotal role. However, both animals and people invariably play second fiddle to the landscape itself – the raison d’être for the privations he chose to face. The book sadly showcases very few of Lear’s paintings – mostly down to the cost, the editor assures me – which is a great shame as often the verbal evocation of place suggests that the rendition is worth seeing. But then Lear was never heralded as a great landscape artist; so perhaps we’re better off with the Coleridge-like descriptions.

Those who have visited the regions Lear explores are likely to be amused and interested at his descriptions; his travel in what is now Albania is especially noteworthy as it is a country few writers today have had the chance to explore (although see Paul Theroux’s Pillars of Hercules). He also provided a handy guidebook-style list of what a self-respecting landscape painter should take for an Albanian trip, which included curry powder and two sets of outer clothing, but should not include “presents for the natives”. The book does offer historical insights into what the locals thought of the English, which generally boiled down to us living off potatoes and with little of note except Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Thames Tunnel. So bad food and good engineering: plus ça change.

Readers who love the nonsense poetry may be disappointed that his prose is far from laugh-a-minute. But the comedy there is comes in the shape of little gems that are worth the effort. We have Lear failing to help extinguish a fire, Lear stumbling over a Turkish pipe bowl, and Lear knocking over a bowl of soup at a Turkish banquet; just to name three. But even when not relaying a specific anecdote like this, Lear’s tone is generally genial, especially during his Italian trips, and you sense that he enjoyed the nomadic lifestyle.

All in all, this is an unusual collection that will interest fans of historical travel writing; and every household should have a copy of ‘The Pobble who has no Toes’ (after all he was no mean traveller himself, swimming across the Bristol Channel). Let us not forget tha Lear was a man that could amuse Queen Victoria; no easy task!

em>Overall verdict: Esoteric entertainment
Carcanet, 2005 (reviewed at publisher’s request)

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