The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Yesterday, 12 May, was the bicentenary of the birth of Edward Lear, humorist and artist. I happened rather idly to search for some of his limericks (my son's studying the form at school these days) and learned this fact. I'm not a particular fan of Lear's limericks - the fact that his last lines usually ended the same as his first always felt like a bit of a cop-out - but I was pleased to find out that he had travelled extensively in India, and (in keeping with my current fetish for random art) painted wonderful landscapes of the places he visited.

One of Lear's closest friends was Evelyn Baring, who became the Personal Secretary to the Viceroy, Lord Northbrook with whom also he was closely acquainted. Northbrook invited him to India in 1872 to tour the country and sketch it. Lear was eventually happy to do so, especially since his expenses would be covered by the government. But his initial plans went awry when he was unable to procure a berth to the subcontinent; enraged, he spent time in Corfu and Alexandria and delayed his trip to India till the following year.

He arrived in Bombay on 22 November 1873. He was to spend considerable time criss-crossing the country, sketching and painting furiously. He would visit parts as far apart as the Western Ghats and Kurseong, the deep South and up North. While he was generally a humorous traveller, willing to try any mode of transport, the exigencies of voyaging in India often reduced him to exhaustion ('O! Hateful Indian travel!') but a day spent painting would soon restore his mood.

He travelled on trains, ekkas (two-wheel horse-driven carts) and on dhoolies (covered litters) and jampans (a sedan chair also carried by men), and tonjons (another sedan-chair). He wrote:
The ekka trial was severe, - bumping, - leg cramping and end injuring, - yet better than I expected. At Bahadoorbad we changed to Dhoolies, - the first time of trial, and they are much more pleasant than I expected: - yet, after a time, the row of men, and the shaky movement bothers... The movement of a Jampan is much like that of a Dhooly, - but you have much more room. Only, when the men change the pole from one shoulder t'other, it seems as if they were about to pitch you over into space... Coolies undulating. Much discomfort at first.
He noted the enormous diversity of India - climatic and geographic, cultural and architectural, zoological and botanic. He felt the bitter cold in the hills in the winter, and the severe heat in the plains. In Malabar, he wrote that the 'heat was always great here, stuffy, puffy, muffy.' Amazed by the torrents of the rainy season, his servant asked him, 'Please sir, how many hundred Monsoons are there in India?' In the cold he had had to stand for hours drawing; the rains prevented him from painting at all.

But he ate heartily. 'We lunched in the broad shade of a great Neem tree, exactly like a fine Ash. Excellent leg of mutton, guinea-fowl's eggs, and cheese, besides sherry and water.' He did complain about the spiciness of the food: 'Heavenly potatoes have these people! the best of any out of old England. But the amount of pepper put into the food is hideous, and I have prohibited it henceforth.' He managed to find alcohol in every outpost of his travels, and drank so copiously that he himself was amazed: 'Good evans! if any of my old friends could know how much Beer and Brandy and Sherry this child conshumes, would they recognise me?'

While he was happy to meet Northbrook and Evelyn Barings, he evidently disliked the pompousness of Viceregal life. Likewise, in Calcutta, socialising with the high society was a strain. 'I believe Viceregal life will bore me to death... No rest in Hustlefussabad.' He loved the solitude of the dak bungalows where he preferred to stay during his travels. 'Happiness and quiet appear to me to exist nowhere in India save in Dak Bungalows: - there they certainly do.' In the Himalayas, he wrote: 'the fact of being thus in this house, and well fed, and so comfortable, - in such a locality - a sort of nowhere - on the borders of India and Thibet, - and of being totally unmolested, and with not even bolt on the doors, - seems a semicircle, and is well worth the contemplation of pipkins, pumpkins, poodles and pearly philosophers.'

Lear's Nonsense verses were immensely popular in India. Of course, this is not to say the local population knew any of them. Rather, the colonial kids - living in their bubbles - knew them and even studied them at school. His interaction with Indians appears to have been somewhat limited. He learned a few Hindi and Tamil words. He could ask the way ('Rusta ke hai?') and he was happy to eat 'Bhat' and curry, and in Madras, could say 'Please endewennum?' He expressed regret that he hadn't bothered to learn the 'Lingo' before arriving in India.

He noted the pompous, officious English of the natives: 'Positively, and without the slightest exaggeration, this Railway nuisance of want of punctuality is becoming insufferably unbearable!' He was surprised that the foreign language was spoke widely in India, even in mofussil towns. And he wondered if there was any point in Indian children being taught in a purely English medium to a purely English syllabus. 'Hear upper class read Henry V, and they were examined in Ivanhoe. Is there, or is there not time thrown away in this sort of learning?

He spent 14 months in India and upon return to England even considered returning. But Northbrook resigned as Viceroy in 1876, and that put paid to any such thoughts Lear had had.

Edward Lear, Study of an Indigo Macaw, now known as Lear’s Macaw (Anodorhynchus leari), watercolor on paper (Houghton Library, MS Typ 55.9 (22))
Lear's Macaw (Houghton Library)

Mountain pass, Lucknow.

Watercolour of Benares.

Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling (National Museum, Cardiff).
View of Gwalior.

Taj Mahal. (Houghton Library/Harvard University)


Vidya Dehejia, Allen Staley, Impossible Picturesqueness: Edward Lear's Indian Watercolours, 1873-1875. Columbia University Press, 1989.

Maddy's Ramblings blog, Edward Lear at 'The Summer Isle of Eden', September 2010.


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