Review by John Donovan

Lear’s Italy: In the Footsteps of Edward Lear
by Michael Montgomery
(Cadogan Guides, 2005)

Much of Edward Lear’s life was spent in Italy, where he went in 1837 at the age of twenty five for reasons of health. Fortunately for all of us, that cure worked well, allowing Lear to draw, paint, write and travel for the rest of his longish life before dying fifty years later at St. Remo in the house that he had eventually built for himself.

Michael Montgomery enthusiastically leads the reader in Lear’s company on his travels from Rome to Sicily, back again up to the Alps, the Riviera and Tuscany, as well as exploring lesser-known regions such as the Abruzzi, Basilicata and southern Calabria.

Montgomery shows good selective judgement in condensing Lear’s journals, letters and diaries into 250 vivid and often comic pages. In addition to a well-written preface, he allows Lear to tell his own story, interrupted only by sensible commentary, helpful maps, pen-and-ink cartoons and illustrations.

By drawing directly from these original sources, Montgomery brings out the remarkably engaging nature of Lear’s personality, whether he is enduring a plague of fleas (“I took out 28 fleas from my sock in a minute” – Naples), wild dogs (“The only break to the utter monotony occurred by a little dog biting my leg very unpleasantly” – Sicily,) or eccentric land owners such as Count Garralo (“the funniest of creative Counts,”) or the “Baron Rivettini” (“globular”). We also meet the Calabrese muleteer Ciccio, who acts as his guide in the wild country of the Aspromonte range, and Georgio, the loyal Suliot servant who looked after Lear for thirty years almost to the end of his life.

“Lear is a delightful companion… full of everything in the shape of fun” wrote Chichester Fortescue, friend and later a minister in Gladstone’s Cabinet, who accompanied Lear on some of his travels. This is a good description, borne out by his ever-present sense of the ridiculous and his ability to communicate with the natives (he spoke several different languages).

Montgomery’s infectious enthusiasm for Lear’s character and many-sided talents is matched by his poignant description of the numerous handicaps which dogged him all his life. Lear is best known today for his Book of Nonsense, but he himself valued his status as an artist above everything else, and he would have been well pleased by his friend Tennyson’s famous epitaph:

“All things fair,
With such a pencil such a pen,
You shadow’d forth to distant men.

I read and felt that I was there.”

To reduce such a quantity of material to average book size has taken clever editing. Hopefully this means that Montgomery is left with much unquarried material for a sequel on his travels further afield, which, if Lear’s Italy is anything to go by, should prove an equal delight to read.

— John Donovan

Lear’s Italy: In the Footsteps of Edward Lear,
Cadogan Guides, 2005 is available at www.amazon.co.uk . 

One Comment

  1. James Campbell Pauline
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    I went to Michael Montgomery’s book launch at the Waterstone’s on Tottenham Court Rd. Patricia’s chicken sandwiches were a hit, and everyone wanted more and more. They are like the tiny ones in Harry’s Bar in Venice that are served with cocktails. Yummy!

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