THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

15 posts categorized "Literature"

09 March 2017

Did Jane Austen develop cataracts from arsenic poisoning?

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When Jane Austen died in 1817, aged 41, her portable writing desk was inherited by her sister Cassandra. It was later passed down through her eldest brother’s family. In 1999, Joan Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen’s great-great-great-niece, very generously entrusted it to the care of the British Library. Among the items that had been stored for generations in the desk drawer were three pairs of spectacles. According to family tradition, they all belonged to Jane Austen.

AUSTEN%20IMAGE%201

Spectacles believed to have belonged to Jane Austen (now British Library Add MS 86841/2-4): wire-framed pair (on left), ‘tortoiseshell pair A’ (centre), ‘tortoiseshell pair B’ (on right, with string wound around arm). 6a00d8341c464853ef01bb097e9917970d

The British Library has for the first time had the spectacles tested. Our Conservation department was involved from the start, to ensure that no harm would come to them. The company Birmingham Optical kindly supplied us with a lensmeter to measure their strength, and their specialist staff undertook the tests.

Jane%20austen%20spectacles%20testing
 Louis Cabena (left) and Deep Singh (right) from Birmingham Optical, with lensmeter and spectacles in the British Library Conservation Centre. 6a00d8341c464853ef01bb097e9917970d

The tests revealed that the three pairs of spectacles are all convex or ‘plus’ lenses, so would have been used by someone longsighted. In other words their owner needed glasses for close-up tasks, such as reading. Interestingly, ‘tortoiseshell pair B’ is much stronger than the others.

Test results

Wire-framed pair:       R. + 1.75 DS  L. +1.75 DS (PD 27.0 53.0 26.0)

Tortoiseshell pair A:   R. + 3.25 DS  L. +3.25 DS (PD 26.0 56.0 30.0)

Tortoiseshell pair B:   R. +5.00/-0.25 x 84 L. +4.75/-0.25 x 49 (PD 28.5 55.0 26.5)

We showed these results to the London-based optometrist Professor Simon Barnard. He believes there are a number of possible reasons for the variation in strength. Jane Austen may always have been longsighted, and initially used the wire-framed pair for reading and distance viewing. She later required a slightly stronger pair (tortoiseshell pair A) for reading, and used the strongest pair (tortoiseshell pair B) for extremely close work, such as fine embroidery, which would have been held closer to the face than a book.

Austen is known to have had problems with her eyes. She complained in several letters about her ‘weak’ eyes. Could it be that she gradually needed stronger and stronger glasses for reading because of a more serious underlying health problem? Professor Barnard believes this is a possibility. He points out that certain systemic health problems can cause changes in the vision of both longsighted and shortsighted people. Diabetes is one such condition, because it can induce cataracts. A gradually developing cataract would mean that an individual would need a stronger and stronger prescription, over time, in order to undertake close-up tasks. However, diabetes was fatal at that time, so someone might not have lived long enough to require several different prescriptions in succession. 

If Austen did develop cataracts, a more likely cause, according to Professor Barnard, is accidental poisoning from a heavy metal such as arsenic. Arsenic poisoning is now known to cause cataracts. Despite its toxicity, arsenic was commonly found in medicines in 19th-century England, as well as in some water supplies. In this situation, Austen would have switched from using the wire-framed pair to tortoiseshell pair A, then pair B, as her cataracts got progressively worse.

Jane Austen’s early death has in the past been attributed to Addison’s disease (an endocrine disorder), cancer and tuberculosis. In 2011, the crime writer Lindsay Ashford suggested that Austen died of arsenic poisoning. She came to this conclusion after reading Austen’s description of the unusual facial pigmentation she suffered at the end of her life – something commonly found with arsenic poisoning. Ashford’s novel The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen strays from theories of accidental poisoning into rather more fantastical murder. The variations in the strength of the British Library’s three pairs of spectacles may indeed give further credence to the theory that Austen suffered from arsenic poisoning, albeit accidental.

We should, however, inject a note of caution at this point: although prescription lenses were in use in Austen’s day, we don’t know whether these glasses were prescribed for her by a physician, or whether she bought them ‘off-the-shelf’. We can’t be completely sure that she wore them at all. However, we are keen to publish these test results in the hope that other eye specialists will share their ideas and opinions with us. 

We know this subject is already of interest to literary scholars. Janine Barchas and Elizabeth Picherit of the University of Texas at Austin have taken a keen interest in the spectacles in the British Library, and have also been investigating Austen’s references to spectacles in her novels. Their theories have now been published in the journal Modern Philology. We look forward to further discussions and debate on this topic.  The spectacles themselves have just gone on display in the British Library’s free Treasures Gallery for all to see.

Dr Sandra Tuppen

Lead Curator, Modern Archives & Manuscripts 1601-1850

The British Library

Email: sandra.tuppen@bl.uk

24 October 2016

Tagore Meets an Old Friend in Iran

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After ousting the young Ahmad Shah from the imperial throne in 1925, Reza Shah Pahlavi determined to once again assert Iran as a world power on the global stage. Gone were the Qajars, who had reduced Iran to a mere plaything in the hands of the English and the Russians; their reign had been replaced by a new order, which sought to modernise Iran, embolden a national identity, and salvage the nation from the ideas and institutions that had so entrammelled it for centuries.

In 1932, Reza Shah invited the Nobel Prize-winning Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore to Iran. Ties between Iran and India stretch back to time immemorial, a fact of which the Shah and the poet were well-aware. The Shah, on one hand, sought to promote and celebrate Iran’s Aryan (or, Indo-Iranian) identity, while Tagore saw Aryan kinsmen in the Iranians. ‘In me they saw a poet, and that too an Eastern poet, an Indo-Aryan poet like themselves’, he noted. Issues of ethnicity, however, constituted only a part of Tagore’s interest in Iran. The poet was familiar with Iranian history and literature, and was also curious about the Pahlavi dynasty.

On 11 April 1932, Tagore and his daughter-in-law Pratima Devi set out for Iran by air, and reached the port city of Bushehr on the 13th. Although Tagore would later visit the ruins of Persepolis and the Iranian capital, Shiraz (in which he arrived on the 16th) undoubtedly marked the raison d'être of his trip.

 

  Tagore with members of the Iranian Parliament in Tehran
Tagore with members of the Iranian Parliament in Tehran Wikimedia Commons

 

In Shiraz, Tagore visited the tombs of the revered Persian poets Sa’di and Hafez. Unlike Voltaire, who had been nicknamed ‘Sa’di’, Tagore – like Goethe before him –felt more of a kinship with Hafez (here is a Mughal-era commentary on his Divan).  Could this have been because of his upbringing? Tagore’s father was a known lover of Hafez. ‘I spent half the night reciting hymns and the verses of Hafez’, he remarked of his childhood evenings. This love was later passed down to his son: ‘… I had my first introduction to Hafez through my father, who used to recite his verses for me’, Tagore recalled in Esfahan. ‘They seemed to me like a greeting from a faraway poet who was yet near to me.’

Indeed, the bond between the two poets extended far beyond verse. At Hafez’s tomb, Tagore sat and read the bard’s poems alone with eyes closed. ‘I had the distinct feeling that after a lapse of many centuries, across the span of many births and deaths … another wayfarer … had found his bond with Hafez’, he afterwards wrote. Echoing the florid imagery of Hafez’s poetry, Tagore penned a eulogy of Iran before leaving for Calcutta in early June:

Iran, all the roses in thy garden
and all their lover birds
have acclaimed the birthday
of the poet of a far-away shore
and mingled their voices in a pair of rejoicing.

… And in return I bind this wreath of my verse
on thy forehead, and I cry: Victory to Iran!

Joobin Bekhrad
Founder and Editor of REORIENT, a publication about contemporary Middle Eastern arts and culture


Further reading:
Das, S.K., ed. The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore. Volume Three: a Miscellany. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996.
Marashi, A. Nationalizing Iran: Culture, Power, and the State, 1870 – 1940. Washington, D.C.: University of Washington Press, 2008.
Mukhopadhyaya, P. & Roy, K. in Radhakrishnan, S., ed. Rabindranath Tagore: a Centenary Volume 1861 – 1961. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1961.

 

26 September 2016

Foreign Names and Flatulence: Dodging Censorship in the Book Trade

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For centuries authors and printers struggled under strict laws and regulations that censored the printing trade. The Pope’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books) was first published in 1559 and only abolished in 1966. Printing continued to be subject to strict censorship via an elaborate system of licensing from the Church and State through the 16th and 17th centuries. The last act under this system was the Licensing of the Press Act (1662), under which the printing of “seditious treasonable and unlicensed books and pamphlets” was banned, punishable by fines and imprisonment. The Stationer’s Company, formed in 1403, enforced these laws. Parliament refused to renew the Licensing Act in 1694 but an umbrella of libel laws still existed that censored any material deemed defamatory, seditious, obscene and blasphemous. Despite these minefields, the print trade continued to grow. By the 18th century a steady stream of books, pamphlets, chapbooks, ballads, broadsides and newspapers were being produced to meet rising demand from an increasingly literate public.

So how did authors, printers and booksellers get away with producing illicit material?

Some material was imported from the continent. The Netherlands in particular benefitted from having an unregulated print trade, a stable economy and no censorious state religion. Some authors remained anonymous. Jonathan Swift, who had already faced prosecution for writing a number of politically controversial pamphlets, published his Gulliver’s Travels anonymously as it was a transparently anti-Whig satire.

MS1

[Jonathan Swift’s] Lemuel Gulliver’s travels into several remote nations of the world, London, 1726, British Library 12612.d.24(1) Cc-by

In some cases works were deemed too dangerous for even printers and booksellers to put their name to. Some remained anonymous, like in the Gulliver’s Travels imprint seen above. Others made up the imprint altogether, fabricating the printer’s name and, in extreme cases, the place in which they were based to mask their identities. The most routinely used fictitious imprint in this period was “A. Moore, near St. Paul’s [Cathedral]”. This imprint was often used simultaneously by more than one bookseller and even became a sort of in joke.  As Bookweight, the bookseller in Henry Fielding’s anonymous play The Author’s Farce, says knowingly, “sometimes we give a foreign name to our own labours… so we have Messieurs Moore near St. Paul’s, and Smith near the Royal Exchange”. It was used to print all manner of works, from political pamphlets to erotica (note the “amour” pun on the imprint) and bawdy scatological works like this one:

  MS2
[Pseudonym] Puff-Indorst Fart in Hando’s The benefit of farting explain’d, Printed for A. Moore, 1722, British Library RB.23.a.8816 Cc-by

There are almost three hundred works listed on ESTC with this “A. Moore” imprint and, as it was then so it is now, it’s difficult to decipher who actually was responsible for printing these works. Current research focuses on matching woodcut ornaments found in these items to other known works by particular printers. However, this is laborious and many of the ornaments used at the time are almost identical. Still, maybe this isn’t such a bad thing; fictitious imprints give us a fascinating insight into the strict regulations that governed the 18th century book trade and solving all their mysteries might somewhat spoil the fun!

References

[Jonathan Swift’s] Lemuel Gulliver’s travels into several remote nations of the world, London, 1726, British Library 12612.d.24(1)
[Henry Fielding] Scriblerus Secundus’ The author’s farce, Dublin, George Risk, etc., [1730] , British Library 11774.aaa.27(2)
[Pseudonym] Puff-Indorst Fart in Hando’s The benefit of farting explain’d, Printed for A. Moore, 1722, British Library RB.23.a.8816

By Maddy Smith, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

28 July 2016

Words will eat themselves

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There is something romantic and tragic about iron gall ink. It has allowed the most beautiful words to take form. The best and the worst words. Dull and incidental household inventories; execution warrants for kings; orders for wars; scientific discoveries; declarations of love. And some of the most incredible poems, prose, songs and stories known to man.

And yet iron gall ink is slowly destroying itself and the paper on which it sits. Words are literally eating themselves into oblivion. Even the ink's composition and ingredients are a result of irritation and death. A sting; a bite; a reaction; a tiny extinction.

IronGall2

Example of iron gall ink damage and subsequent 20th century repair on Add MS 38599 c. early 17th century. Cc-by

I recently attended an Iron Gall Ink Study Day with our brilliant Conservation Department. Three of our conservators have made a study of the ink and their knowledge and research on the subject is amazing. The following are a few images from the day and some manuscripts which show iron gall ink damage.

IronGall7

Example of iron gall ink damage on a vellum manuscript.  Cc-by

Iron gall ink is made from tannin (most often taken from oak marble galls), vitriol (iron sulphate), gum and water. The galls are a tree's reaction to the eggs laid by tiny wasps. The galls serve to protect the little wasps as they develop. One of the galls I picked up had the body of the wasp lying next to it. It must have emerged from the hole in the gall and expired almost immediately. Allegedly, the richest tannin was produced when the body of the wasp was trapped inside. The best galls were apparently from Aleppo as they have three times as much tannin as British galls (at only 17%).

  IronGall3

Examples of oak marble galls. Cc-by

The way in which iron gall ink was applied also relates to levels of damage. If applied with a brush, the ink is less likely to eat through the page, whereas applied with a metal nib, the ink bites through.

IronGall6

Same iron gall ink but applied with a brush (left) and a metal nib (right). Cc-by

Similarly, the composition and recipe of the ink affects just how much damage it inflicts. A balanced recipe is more likely to be stable than one which contains larger proportions of gallotannic acid or iron sulphate. Here's a link to just one recipe for the ink. There were hundreds if not thousands of recipes in use at any one time.

  IronGall4  IronGall5

Ingredients in iron gall ink (left) and the colour of the iron sulphate and gallotannic acid when mixed together (right).Cc-by

Why, then, if the damage was evident, was iron gall ink in constant use until relatively recently? It was probably because paper (and indeed vellum) were of good quality up until the mass production of paper in the eighteenth century. Once the paper quality decreased, the effect of iron gall ink was particularly noticeable. Indeed, the most damaged manuscripts I have seen date from the nineteenth century. Wilkie Collins was a particular horror as he scribbled out his lines constantly. The paper on which he wrote was incredibly thin. Much of his manuscripts flake in places where he has crossed out. 

IronGall10

Add MS 41060, Drafts of Basil and Mr Wray's Cash-Box by Wilkie Collins. Cc-by

The ink's path of destruction moves in three dimension. It creeps through entire text blocks consuming the innards of volumes. Until recently, nobody knew that it was both the tannin and the iron sulphate which were damaging. Our Conservation Team are constantly looking at ways to stabilise, treat and better understand iron gall ink. But even then, they say that there is no stopping time: iron gall ink will eventually destroy the prose, poems, letters and warrants. Vitriolic words indeed.

Alexandra Ault, Curator, Manuscripts 1601-1850.

To find out more about our Conservation Department their blog is here and their web pages are here

24 May 2016

Shakespeare in India

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The British Library holds a vast collection of Sir Francis Younghusband’s papers.  Younghusband is perhaps chiefly remembered for his role in the British invasion of Tibet in 1903-1904, but his military career was only one aspect of a fascinating character, He was a writer, explorer, mystic, and, from the evidence of one file amongst his papers, perhaps an amateur drama critic as well.

 

Younghusband F60155-77

Portrait of Francis Younghusband - India Office Private Papers Mss.Eur. F197/646 (13) Images Online  Noc

 

The file is titled ‘Shakespeare in India’.  It contains two undated versions of an essay (one typescript, one handwritten) which was composed in Westerham, Kent, where Younghusband and his wife lived between 1921 and 1937 after his retirement.
 

  Shakespeare in India

India Office Private Papers Mss Eur F197/505 Noc

 

The essay begins with an anecdote about a teenage Indian Maharaja known to Younghusband who regularly slipped out of his palace to go and see productions of Shakespeare in the local bazaar. Younghusband then sets down his thoughts about the interpretation and reception of Shakespeare in the sub-continent, even ranking the plays in terms of popularity:
“The most popular is Othello. There is a larger number of translations of this play than of any other. Othello is an Oriental figure; he is heroic, and he is a lover. Hence the popularity of the play among Indians. The next in favour is The Merchant of Venice. Shylock reminds Indians of their own money-lenders and they enjoy seeing him outwitted … Third in order of popularity is Romeo and Juliet. Indians love it because of its intensity of passion. Hamlet is not so generally popular as these three or even As You Like It and The Tempest. The historical plays the Indians do not care for …” .

 

Othello

From W. Harvey, The Works of Shakspeare (1825) BL flickr Noc


Younghusband identifies seven plays which are worthy of being recognized as great, as distinct from merely popular, works: Othello, King Lear, Hamlet, The Tempest, Cymbeline, Measure for Measure, and finally Romeo and Juliet . He believes that Indians like Shakespeare especially for
   "... his magic use of words, his gorgeous imagery, his love of nature and of humanity ... He creates heroes, and Indians love the heroic ... He shows delicacy of touch in handling the relations  between men and women, and Indians love to keep that relation sacred. He praises home and home affections, and Indians love their homes and believe in the virtue of domestic  affections ...".
 
There is, however, one aspect of the western writer's work which Indians compare unfavourably to their own national epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata:
"Indians love to feel lifted out of themselves to a higher, lovelier spiritual plane ... And in that light, they note a deficiency or inadequacy in Shakespeare ... There is in [the plays] none of that intensity of joy which mystics know ... They think his realism is not real enough. He has probed deep but not deep enough. If he had pierced deeper into the nature of things he would have nearer to the true reality - to that most real which is also the most ideal".

 

   Ramayana_lgNoc
Ramayana, by Sahib Din. Battle between the armies of Rama and the King of Lanka. Udaipur, 1649-53 British Library Add. MS 15297 (1), f.91 BL Online Gallery 


 
If this story has made you keen to know more about Younghusband , the enquiry desk staff in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room on the third floor will be delighted to assist!
 
Hedley Sutton & Karen Waddell
Asian & African Studies Reference Services   Cc-by

Further reading:
Papers of Sir Francis Younghusband – India Office Private Papers Mss Eur F197.
Baptismal certificate for Francis Younghusband born 1863 in Murree, India  -  IOR/N/1/107 f.52.
Ranjee Gurdarsing Sahani,  Shakespeare through Eastern eyes (London, 1932) - T 13070.
Patrick French, Younghusband: the last great imperial adventurer (London, 1994) - ORW.1995.a.1939.
Francis Younghusband, The British invasion of Tibet (abridged edition London, 1999) – Asian & African Studies Reading Room OII951.5.
Poonam Trivedi & Dennis Bartholomeusz (eds), India’s Shakespeare  (Newark, N.J., 2005)  – YC.2006.a.16549.
Douglas A. Brooks (ed), Shakespeare and Asia  (Lewiston, 2010) – YC.2011.a.12555. 


   

Visit the British Library’s stunning exhibition Shakespeare in ten acts     Vivien_leigh_shakespeare

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12 May 2016

Edward Lear: politicians, poems and runcible hats.

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Today is Edward Lear’s 204th Birthday.  To celebrate, I’ve chosen to look at a letter from Lear to the MP and later prime minister, Sir William Ewart Gladstone and another to William Bevan, British Vice-Consul in San Remo.

The letter to Gladstone was written in October 1863 on a printed subscription list and advertisement for Lear’s publication Views in the Seven Ionian Islands.

LearIonianIslands

Letter from Edward Lear to William Ewart Gladstone Add MS 44401.  Untitled

Views in the Seven Ionian Islands was a series of lithographs drawn and published by Lear in December 1863. Lear produced a list of the noteworthy subscribers and used their names to further advertise the project. Among the many names were Lear's good friends Chichester Parkinson-Fortescue and Frances, Countess Waldegrave.

LearSubscribers

 Verso of a letter from Edward Lear to William Ewart Gladstone Add MS 44401. Untitled

In the letter, Lear asked Gladstone if he would consider subscribing to the Ionian Views:

"I hope that the enclosed circular of a work I am about to publish on the Ionian Islands may interest you sufficiently to induce you to subscribe for a copy of it. I had lived there so long, that I may say without impropriety that few artists can have drawn the beautiful scenery there as much and as carefully as I."

LearIonianLitho1

Lithograph 'View from the Village of Galaro - Zante' in Views in the Seven Ionian Islands, drawn and published by Edward Lear, 1863. British Library 1782.d.16. Untitled

LearIonianLitho2

Lithograph 'Town and Harbour of Caïo - Paxo' in Views in the Seven Ionian Islands, drawn and published by Edward Lear, 1863. British Library 1782.d.16. Untitled

The letter to Gladstone could not be more different from another letter in the British Library Manuscript Collections which is addressed to William Bevan, the British Vice-Consul who had moved to San Remo and lived near Lear. The letter contains Lear's  poem How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear which was apparently composed with the help of Bevan's eldest daughter. Lear has also included a caricature of himself and his cat Foss.

Lear

Letter from Edward Lear to Archdeacon Bevan 145 January 1879, Add MS 61891 ff.104-9. Untitled

This drawing must surely illustrate the following verse in the poem:

He has many friends, lay men and clerical,
Old Foss is the name of his cat;
His body is perfectly spherical,
He weareth a runcible hat. 

 The letter beneath the poem reads:

I disclose you a Pome, which you may or may Knott send to the Lady who says "How pleasant to know Mr Lear,  It may be sung to the air "how cheerful along the Gay Mead". 

Lear stated that his poem could be set to the music of the hymn How Cheerful along the Gay Mead. Here is a link to the score in the Levy Sheet Music Collection if anyone fancies a sing-along with Lear on his birthday! 

Alexandra Ault, Curator, Manuscripts and Archives 1601-1850.

 

20 March 2016

Art meets Science: Newton, Blake and the British Library

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At the end of British Science Week I'm using arguably the British Library's most famous resident as a gateway into some of our manuscript collections. In case you hadn't guessed, I'm talking about Sir Isaac Newton, who died on this day in 1727.

The large statue of Newton, which sits outside the British Library, was made by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi in 1995. Rachel Huddart has written a brilliant blog about the statue here.

 Isaac2

Statue of Sir Isaac Newton by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, 1995, in the Piazza of the British Library. Untitled

The statue was based on an extremely rare colour print and watercolour of Newton by William Blake which is now in the Tate Gallery. So rare, in fact that only two versions of this print exist.

N05058_10

Newton by William Blake, 1795- circa 1805, colour print, ink and watercolour on paper,  © Tate  N05058 [image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 ]

One of the star items in the manuscripts collection at the British Library is William Blake's notebook which contains drafts of his poems as well as many drawings.

Blake william notebook 070520

Folio 12 from The notebook of William Blake (The Rossetti Manuscrtipt), c irca 1787 - 1847, pen and black ink with pencil. Add MS 49460. Untitled

In folio 12, Blake has written part of the poem 'You don't believe' along the left-hand edge. The poem makes reference to Newton in the second verse:

Reason says 'Miracle': Newton says 'Doubt'.

Here, Blake's belief in miracles can be seen in contrast to what Andrew M. Cooper calls Newton's 'self-excluding observational stance'.

Newton came to London in 1696 to oversee the Royal Mint. The British Library also owns significant material relating to the Mint including account books and diaries.

IMG_6338

Detail of a page from the account book of Thomas Simon, chief engraver to the Royal Mint (1660-1665) Add MS 45190. Untitled

Newton was also President of the Royal Society between 1703-1727. The British Library has important groups of manuscripts relating to the Society including the Thomas Birch and Hans Sloane Collections.

  Birch

Volumes from the Birch Collection relating to the Royal Society. Add MS 4300-4323, British Library. Untitled

BirchF1

Dr William Croon's account of the weight of a carp, 1663, detail from Add MS 4432, f. 1, Royal Society Papers, Thomas Birch Collection. Untitled

The British Library has extensive scientific collections across all departments. Take some time to look at our contemporary pages, browse the Science blog as well as explore the earlier collections in the Manuscripts and Archives catalogue.

Alexandra Ault, Curator, Manuscripts and Archives 1601-1850

 

 

 

29 January 2016

Edward Lear Breaks My Heart

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Today is the anniversary of Edward Lear's death in 1888. Everything about Lear delights and surprises. From his limericks and stories to his ornithological watercolours and topographical landscape paintings, his work gently tugs at the very souls of children and adults alike.

I first came across Lear as the author of The Owl and the Pussycat and as a small child I had a porridge spoon which I named 'The Runcible Spoon'.

LearOandPC8

'The Owl and the Pussy-Cat', in A Book of Nonsense . . . with all the original pictures and verses, by Edward Lear. Published by George Routledge & Sons, London, 1910. British Library 12812.bb.26 13. Untitled

As an adult I remember being surprised to see a pen and ink landscape drawing by Lear as I'd had no idea that he was a topographical artist. This led me to delight in further watercolours, drawings and vast oil paintings. Some of the drawings are so immediate you can almost feel Lear sketching and making notes on the colours in the view before him.

  LearHowatke

Howatke by Edward Lear, 1867. Watercolour, graphite, pen and brown ink. Yale Centre for British Art, Gift of Donald C. Gallup. B1997.7.99.

Others views are so grand that they could rival the apocalyptical paintings by John Martin

LearYale

Kangchenjunga from Darjeeling by Edward Lear, 1879. Oil on canvas. Yale Centre for British Art, Gift of Michael D. Coe, B2009.18.

The British Library owns a number of Lear's manuscripts including that for The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipplepopple, Add MS 47462.

In the story Lear states "There was a family of two old guinea pigs and seven young guinea pigs . . . the guinea pigs todddled about the gardens, and ate lettuce and Cheshire cheese". When the seven young guinea pigs were sent away to see the world, the "old guinea pigs said, 'Have a care that you eat your lettuces, should you find any, not greedily, but calmly". I love Lear's use of language here as he portrays animals with such sensitivity and humour.

I’m particularly obsessed with the manuscript sketch of the guinea pigs and it’s wonderful to be able to compare the ink drawing with the published illustration. The manuscript shows only the seven little guinea pigs, some of whom are running so fast their feet fail to touch the ground. The published illustration shows the older guinea pigs as well.

LearPigs

‘The History of the Seven Families’ from A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear, this edition published by George Routledge & Sons: London, 1910. British Library 12812.bb.26., 180. Untitled

  LearMSPigs

Manuscript illustration for 'The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipplepopple' by Edward Lear, 1871, pen and black ink, British Library Add MS 47462. f. 37. Untitled

Not only do I love Lear, I also adore his pet cat, Foss who died just three months before him. Lear loved Foss so much that when the cat died he had a grave made for him in his garden.  Foss first arrived as a tiny kitten in Lear's household in 1873. He was evidently a lively cat who was caught shredding Lear's letters and stealing slices of toast from visitors.

FossCouchant

'Foss Couchant' from 'The Heraldic Blazons of Foss'. Illustration taken from Nonsense Songs & Stories by Edward Lear. Published by Frederick Warne & Co, London and New York, 1898. Author's own copy. Untitled

I also own a cat called Foss, named in honour of Edward Lear's pet. Like his namesake, the 21st century Foss also shreds post and newspapers. While he doesn't care for toast he has been known to attack ham sandwiches.

  FossCouchant2

Foss, 2015. Photograph author's own.

 Alexandra Ault, Curator, Manuscripts and Archives 1601-1850, British Library.