Teapots and Quails: And Other New Nonsenses

Teapots and Quails: And Other New Nonsenses

Teapots and Quails: And Other New Nonsenses

Teapots and Quails: And Other New Nonsenses

Excerpt

Lear used to say, in later life, that he could remember being taken out of bed, wrapped in a blanket, and held at an upper window of the big house at Highgate where he was born -- which looked, from the top of its steep hill, far out over London -- to watch the fireworks that celebrated the victory of Waterloo. He was three years old at the time: he was, in fact, born in May 1812, the youngest of an enormous family which, after the bankruptcy and ruin of the father, dispersed to the four winds. The delicate, short-sighted little boy was brought up by his eldest sister Ann, twenty-one years older than himself, and at fifteen was already beginning to earn his living by doing commissioned drawings, of medical and other subjects, for a few shillings. With diligence he perfected his technique as a natural history draughtsman, and this led to his being employed by the Zoological Society to make drawings of the parrots at the Zoo, to other commissions from distinguished naturalists, and finally (when he was still no more than twenty) to an invitation from Lord Derby to stay for a long period at Knowsley Hall near Liverpool and make drawings of the birds and animals in his private "menagerie" there. Lear's natural history drawings show a precise scientific knowledge and observation, an exquisite skill in the delineation of minute and accurate detail, and also the deeper perception and constructive sense of an artist. But his eyesight, always weak, prevented his continuing in this very exacting type of work, and he decided to take to landscape instead: he made up his mind to become a "topographical landscape painter."

The decision brought with it two great advantages. It would allow him, with his restless, inquisitive nature, to achieve one of his greatest ambitions -- to travel; and it would give him a perennial pretext for avoiding the English winter, to the benefit of the bronchitis and asthma to which he was prone. And so a traveller he became, a traveller for the rest of his life, in many different lands. He visited India and Ceylon, Egypt and Arabia and Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine. Italy he explored from end to end; his first travel books were written about it; his last years were spent at San Remo, and there, in 1888, he died. But it was Greece that remained, all his life, the country that he loved best; its "divinest beauty," he wrote, charmed him from the moment of his first visit. He traversed the whole of the Greek Peninsula, in journeys that were long, laborious, and extremely uncomfortable . . .

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