I was slightly disconcerted to note that a small new display which opened yesterday at the Fitzwilliam Museum is available only until 22 April; and even more so that an exhibition opening at the Chelsea Physic Garden on 15 April will also close on 15 April. From pop-up boutiques and restaurants to pop-up museums?
But in fact the reason for the short period of the Fitzwilliam exhibition is understandable: it was planned to coincide with a talk in the Cambridge Literary Festival by Jenny Uglow, the most recent biographer of Edward Lear, which takes place (also) on 15 April in the Museum. (The noise you can hear in the background is me gnashing my teeth because I failed to secure a ticket …)
I have mentioned before that, after careful planning and manipulation, I was given Mr Lear as a Christmas present, and I thoroughly recommend it, just as I do anything Jenny Uglow has written – I bet even her washing-bills are amazing, almost as good as the ones Catherine Morland found in the black and yellow japan cabinet in Northanger Abbey.
So people who are coming to the talk will have to opportunity to see some drawings and letters from the Museum’s collections and archives. There is a beautiful watercolour of Mount Athos (above), painted in 1857, which apparently came into the possession of the Revd W.G. Clarke of Trinity, classical and Shakespearian scholar and traveller, who left it to Joseph Prior (a fellow of Trinity, whose Latin memorial inscription in the chapel was composed by A.E. Housman), who in turn bequeathed it to the Museum in 1918.
There is a wonderful drawing (from 1847) on blue paper of half-collapsed buildings in the southern Italian city of Venosa (ancient Venusia, ‘city of Venus’, once the seat of Prince Carlo Gesualdo, well known composer and wife-murderer, and nephew of St Carlo Borromeo.
There are some letters, one to the daughter of C.R. Cockerell (1778–1863), the architect of (inter alia) the Ashmolean Museum and the Taylorian Institution in Oxford, which was enclosed with some photographs of the temple of Apollo at Bassae in the Peloponnese, of which Cockerell himself had made a major study: the frieze now in the British Museum was discovered by him.
It is a nice coincidence of history that the Fitzwilliam’s large oil painting by Lear of the temple of Bassae (presented to the Museum by his friends in 1860) hangs in a gallery designed by Cockerell after the untimely death of the building’s original architect, George Basevi (he fell from the bell tower of Ely Cathedral while inspecting repairs).
The Book of Nonsense, probably Lear’s most famous work, first published in 1846, is represented by its 28th edition, which at my visit was open at the page containing:
There was an Old Person of Bangor,
Whose face was distorted with anger!
He tore off his boots,
And subsisted on roots,
That irascible Person of Bangor.
But the most entertaining item (in my view) is a page from a ‘Nonsense Book’ given to the Museum in 1923 by William Barclay Squire (1855–1927), an interesting man who, after education at the International College at Spring Grove, Isleworth (former country home of Sir Joseph Banks), and a period learning German in Frankfurt-am-Main, arrived at Pembroke College, Cambridge, to read history in 1875.
Although intended for the family pharmaceutical firm (hence the German), Squire followed a different path, having been seduced into music at Cambridge, not least by friendship with his brother-in-law John Fuller-Maitland, Charles Villiers Stanford, then the conductor of CUMS, and Sir George Grove: Squire contributed more than 130 articles to the Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
Probably as a result of these connections (since he had no relevant previous experience), in 1885 Squire was given the post of assistant in the department of Printed Books at the British Museum, with specific responsibility for the music collections, which over the next twenty years he proceeded single-handedly to catalogue. He also edited the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, and perhaps this connection with the Museum led him to make the gift?
The book(let) is described as a ‘SERIES of 8 humorous pen drawings … Each 6½ by 8¼ [inches]’. They depict ‘Ye artist … reposing in ye wonderfull Bedde’, and the subject is Lear himself, almost certainly in the bedroom which was ‘his’ during his frequently stays at Knowsley Hall, the country seat near Liverpool of the earls of Derby.
Lord Stanley, later the 13th earl, was for several years president of the Zoological Society, and came to know Lear when he was painting his extraordinary portraits of the parrots in London Zoo.
He invited him to Knowsley to make a record of his private natural history collections. Lear recounted how at first he had been led to the servants’ quarters, but that the earl himself had come and swept him off to the ‘family’ side of the house: he found himself mixing with the aristocracy (many of whom clearly didn’t know how to behave to a clearly honoured guest who was not however ‘one of us’), and luxuriating in a bedroom and bed so large that ‘Ye artist’ could repose in it at all points of the compass, before being wakened by a party of musicians, dressing (‘Ye Artist in dressing becomes involved in his linen garmint’), and going down to breakfast.
The page on display is the fourth in the sequence: ‘Ye prospect is taken from the south side of the beautifulle chamber, with Ye Artist a repozing of himself on the East side of ye wonderfull bedde’. The title, appearing below the image as though it was a scientific diagram, is followed by a key to the numbered items in the picture, which include: 11. ‘Ye pinnecushing’, 16. ‘Ye cockrobin’ and 17. ‘Ye henrobin’, 19.’Ye flies on the window pain’, and 20. ‘Ye artist his slippers’. No. 18 is ‘Ye little Dreames’, fairly benign-looking creatures lined up along the canopy of the bed.
This self-mockery and muddle of archaic, made-up and modern spelling, alongside the caricature of the scientific method, are all features of Lear’s self-deprecating style – as Uglow describes, he sought to deflect unkindness about his odd appearance (and his epilepsy) by getting the jokes against himself in first. I would really like to see the whole sequence, so must make memo to self to make an appointment in the Graham Robertson Study Room … which reminds me that the other reason why the exhibition is short-lived is that some of the Museum galleries will closing soon for much needed structural repairs to the building – details are available on the website.