Edward Lear was described by one of his contemporaries as ‘a man of versatile and original genius’. With the recent 200th anniversary exhibition celebrations of his birth in 1812 both in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford and in Corfu, the aim of the Society is to widen the public knowledge, to advance education and to recognise the many interests in connection with Lear, be it music, song writing, poetry, travel, his painting skills, both in watercolour and oils. When he died he left over 7000 watercolours made during his travels, another 2000 studio watercolours, sets of illustrations to Tennyson’s poems, 200 oil paintings, ornithological lithographs, travel books, books of nonsense, songs and thousands of letters. Spiro Flamburiari and I decided the best way to celebrate his heritage was to form a Society where members and devotees of his works could access through a website and add to the information we have immediately at hand. In order to achieve this master fund of knowledge, the present website has been produced where information can be gleaned and added to.
We are fortunate in having recruited many luminaries who represent various subjects epitomizing Lear’s career, including Zoology & Natural History, Crete, Corfu, Italy, Tennyson, Art, Literature & Poetry, Theatre and Knowsley. Please find below a list of all the members of the Society’s Advisory Council.
We plan study days at Knowsley, where Lear’s first commissions emanated from the Earl of Derby, visits to museums and private collections and annual Art and Literature prizes to be offered to school children. Please email us for more information: email@example.com
Derek E. Johns
THE EDWARD LEAR SOCIETY ADVISORY COUNCIL
Count Spiro Flamburiari & Derek Johns
To read more about any of the Advisory Council, please click on their name.
Sir David Attenborough (Zoology & Natural History)
Sir David Attenborough is Britain's best-known natural history film-maker. His career as a naturalist and broadcaster has spanned six decades and there are very few places on the globe that he has not visited.
Sir David's first job - after Cambridge University and two years in the Royal Navy - was at the London publishing house Hodder & Stoughton. Then in 1952 he joined the BBC as a trainee producer and it was while working on the Zoo Quest series (1954-64) that he had his first opportunity to undertake expeditions to remote parts of the globe to capture intimate footage of rare wildlife in its natural habitat. He was Controller of BBC2 (1965-68), during which time he introduced colour television to Britain, then Director of Programmes for the BBC (1969-1972). However in 1973 he abandoned administration altogether to return to documentary-making and writing.
Over the last 25 years he has established himself as the world's leading natural history programme maker with several landmark BBC series, including Life on Earth (1979), The Living Planet (1984), The Trials of Life (1990), The Private Life of Plants (1995), Life of Birds (1998), Life of Mammals (2002) and Life in the Undergrowth (2005). Sir David has been a Trustee of the British Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; is an Honorary Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge; and a Fellow of the Royal Society and was knighted in 1985.
Clive Aslet (Media)
Clive Aslet is an award-winning writer and journalist, acknowledged as a leading authority on Britain and its way of life. In 1977 he joined the magazine Country Life, was for 13 years its Editor and is now Editor at Large. He writes extensively for papers such as the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Spectator, and often broadcasts on television and radio. He is well-known as a campaigner on the countryside and other issues. His love for Edward Lear was rekindled when he read the nonsense rhymes to his children; he bitterly regrets the loss of a casette (it was some time ago) on which they were sung to some of Lear's own haunting music.
This year Clive publishes his first novel The Birdcage, with Cumulus. Set in Salonika, in 1916 and 1917, it is a tale of espionage, kite ballooning, adventurous nurses and the Struma Follies, an attempt to entertain an army stuck in the wilds of Macedonia with no prospect of leave. A neutral city, Salonika had some of the qualities of Casablanca in World War 2.
This project grew out of his researches for War Memorial, published by Viking, which resurrects the lives of the individuals named on a village war memorial - Lydford in Devon. It was chosen almost at random to tell the story of Everyman at war. He also visited the places where 'his men' fell: a video on his website describes some of his travels.
The Edwardian Country House (2012) is a reprise, completely redesigned and freshly illustrated, of his first book, The Last Country Houses, which was published in 1982. Since then he has written on architecture in the United States, on British identity, on the countryside and on the House of Lords. Lady Antonia Fraser, reviewing Landmarks of Britain, published in 2005, called it 'a brilliant, far-ranging enterprise'. Jenny Uglow wrote that his latest book, The English House, 'is a thorough treat': Clive is 'the perfect guide' to the subject, 'combining long experience with a light touch.' He subsequently travelled the length and breadth of Britain, from Cornwall to Caithness, for Villages of Britain.
Married to Naomi, who is a publisher, with three sons, William, Johnny and Jojo (whose real name is Charles), Clive divides his time between Pimlico, in central London, and Ramsgate, on the Kent coast. He likes talking, eating and the arts. 'I am lucky,' he says. 'My working life is organised around all the things I feel passionately about.' He wrote A Horse in the Country about his budding equestrian life but is now back on two feet. In another existence he would like to be an opera singer, a chef or William Cobbett.
Sir Max Hastings, newspaper editor and historian: 'Clive Aslet has been an extraordinarily informed and influential standard-bearer for the cause of the countryside and Britain's heritage for many years. He is an exceptionally thoughtful and fluent man, who lends distinction to any form with which he is engaged.'
David Dimbleby, broadcaster: 'Charming, erudite, amusing...His energy, enthusiasm and learning, always lightly worn, are prodigious.'
Ann C. Colley
Ann C. Colley is a Distinguished Professor at the State University of New York where she is a member of the English Faculty. Her critical studies on the connection between Edward Lear’s nonsense and his landscape painting have appeared in the journal Victorian Poetry as well as in her study of the relationship between words and images, The Search for Synthesis in Literature and Art: The Paradox of Space. A few years ago, Professor Colley wrote about the critical reception of Lear’s work, Edward Lear and the Critics. In her forthcoming Wild Animal Skins in Victorian Britain: Zoos, Collections, Portraits, and Maps, she devotes one chapter (“Stuff and Nonsense”) to Lear’s natural history studies executed at Knowsley Hall. Professor Colley specializes in Victorian literature and culture. Her other books include: Tennyson and Madness, Nostalgia and Recollection in Victorian Britain, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Colonial Imagination, and Victorians in the Mountains: Sinking the Sublime. She is currently a Visiting Fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge.
The Countess of Derby (Knowsley)
The Hon. Caroline Emma Neville is the second daughter of the 10th Lord Braybrooke, Her Majesty’s Lord Lieutenant of Essex. Her love of art started at a young age, nurtured by her paternal grandfather and being brought up at Audley End, Essex. She graduated in History and History of Art from the University of London. During the late 1980s and early 1990s she worked as a paintings’ curator in the Royal Collection. In 1995 she married Edward, 19th Earl of Derby and they have three children. During the late 1990s she and her husband masterminded the restoration of Knowsley Hall, Merseyside, which is a stately home and events business. While she continues to be closely involved with the management and conservation of the Derby Collection, Lady Derby, who enjoys various equestrian interests, has played a leading role in fundraising for charities and health organisations on Merseyside.
John Dryden (Theatre)
John Dryden studied for a BA Hons in Fine Art and has over 40 years professional experience as an actor and theatre director, working in London's West end and in the major cities of Great Britain. He has appeared on television in many varied programmes and has taught Theatre studies in some of the top Drama Colleges. John has toured many developing countries under the auspices of the British Council presenting excerpts from some of the best plays in the English language. John was Head of School of Performing Arts at Chichester prior to moving to Corfu 10 years ago.
In October 2013 he launched the ETC, English Theatre Corfu and will be presenting a new play by Corfu resident, Mike Healey called BEWARE THE JABBERWOCK.
It has been written specifically for the 150th Ionian Anniversary celebrations and tells the story of Edward Lear in 1864 in his final days in Corfu with his Albanian manservant Georgiou.
John will direct the production and will also be playing the part of Edward Lear. It is described as an evening of Lear's nonsense and includes many of his limericks, nonsense rhymes and a section from The Owl and The Pussycat. There is a cast of over 40 actors, dancers and local Corfiot school children.
Stephen Duckworth (Crete)
Stephen Duckworth first visited Crete in 1959, and has been returning regularly for the last forty years. Lear and Crete came together when he read Rowena Fowler's The Cretan Journal, published in 1984 and based on Lear's only visit to Crete in 1864. He has researched Lear's drawings from this expedition and the Gennadius Library in Athens published his researches in 2011. In 2012 he, Rowena Fowler and Charles Lewsen headed the efforts to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Lear's birth in Britain, with a series of events in London around the anniversary and the encouragement of art institutions to display their Lear drawings and paintings. His main interest is Lear's prodigious output of drawings made on his journeys, and a project is to estimate how large this output actually was. He has developed a website which fully details the Cretan drawings, and spoke about these drawings in Crete in May 2014 at the Heraklion Historical Museum, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Lear's visit to the island.
Dr. Clemency Fisher (Zoology & Natural History)
Dr Clemency Fisher was born in rural Northamptonshire, the sixth and last child of the ornithologist James Fisher and his wife Margery, novelist and children’s book critic. There were numerous bird pictures in their home, which to this day bear the imprint of the thousands of thunderflies that had made their way under the glass. Most were by John Gould, or Édouard Traviès, but several were by Edward Lear, including a huge print of the extinct Great Auk from John Gould’s “The birds of Europe”. All the children were brought up on Lear’s Nonsense Rhymes, mostly using their grandfather’s battered green copy of the classic old Frederick Warne edition.
Dr Fisher is now a zoologist, historian and gardener, with degrees from Cambridge University (UK) and Liverpool Polytechnic (now Liverpool John Moores University). She also has a diploma from the Museums Association. Clem began her career as a runner (literally) for the Zoological Record (then based at the Zoological Society of London) and later worked on an African bird atlas for David Snow, the Natural History Museum’s Senior Curator at the Ornithological Outstation at Tring, in Hertfordshire. In 1975 Dr Snow helped her obtain a 4-year position at the then Liverpool Museum, where she still is, nearly 40 years later, now as Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, National Museums Liverpool. This museum service was founded on the bird and mammal collections of Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby, who was the first of several Earls of Derby to support Edward Lear, and it is to him and his family that the Nonsense Rhymes were dedicated.
The 13th Earl of Derby, a founder of the Zoological Society of London, must have come across Lear as he sketched birds there, and Lear was duly invited to make drawings of the individuals living in the earl’s enormous private zoo at Knowsley Hall, eight miles west of the centre of Liverpool. Lear lived there for several years in the 1830s, and in effect became private tutor to the many children of the household, who he often entertained with stories and poems. During his stay Lear produced a large number of natural history paintings and drawings, many modelled on the animals in Lord Derby’s living collection or drawn from specimens in his museum. Often Lear was called upon to paint an animal that had recently expired, before it lost its sheen or colouring, hence the rather stiff nature of some of his artwork. These recently expired animals were then the subjects of Lord Derby’s preparators, after which they were added to his museum. Nearly 200 years later Dr Fisher now looks after Lord Derby’s specimens, including the models for Lear’s paintings and drawings, all of which are carefully stored in an air-conditioned room. Most of Lear’s original artwork is still in the library at Knowsley Hall, or in the Houghton Library at Harvard University.
Dr Fisher was the editor of A passion for natural history – the life and legacy of the 13th Earl of Derby, which was published in 2002 to coincide with a major exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. This book includes chapters on Lear’s natural history art by Robert McCracken Peck and his Italian landscapes by Edward Morris. There are also accounts by Clem and her colleague Malcolm Largen of particular specimens, many of which were from animals and birds named after Edward Derby and drawn by Lear, such as Lord Derby’s Woolly Opossum, Lord Derby’s Parakeet and the Stanley Crane. Clem has also written several articles which include analysis of Edward Lear’s paintings and the specimens he used as models, notably for the Stanley Estates news letter, and for a recently published conference proceedings on the history of zoological gardens. At present she is working with Western Australian Museum bird curator Ron Johnstone on a paper formally overturning the status of the type specimen of “Baudin’s Cockatoo”. Lear painted this specimen for his “iconotypic” picture in Illustrations of the … Psittacidae but for many years the bird was thought to be lost. Recently it was found in the Liverpool collections and turned out to be what is now called Carnaby’s Cockatoo.
Dr Fisher has also worked extensively on bird bones from archaeological excavations and on the conservation of bats, and spent four years on secondment working on displays on local history for the new waterfront Museum of Liverpool, which opened in 2011. Her main research, however, is on John Gilbert (the often-overlooked assistant to John Gould), who collected more than 8% of all Australia’s birds and mammals for the first time, and thousands of specimens of reptiles, amphibians, fish, shells, insects and plants. She has published numerous articles on this most diligent of naturalists, and produced Top of the Top End (2009), a 240 page monograph based on Gilbert’s collections from the Cobourg Peninsula, on the north coast of Australia. At present she has a two-year Leverhulme Trust grant to finish some of her work on Gilbert, particularly her critical edition of Gilbert’s diary from the First Leichhardt Expedition, the first expedition ever to cross Australia (1844-1845).
Count Spiro Flamburiari (Corfu & London)
Spiro Flamburiari is a descendant of one of the principal Corfiot families ennobled by the Venetians. He has been connected with the island throughout his life; his involvement with Corfu has been an ongoing affair. As President of the Corfu Heritage Foundation, his task has been to preserve the traditions and history of the Island. Amongst his various activities, he has introduced the equivalent of the commemorative English Blue Plaques; these plaques have now been successfully installed on notable buildings all over the Town of Corfu.
One of his ambitions has been to promote the significant British connection and heritage of the island – which arose uniquely because of the long British Protectorate of the Ionian Islands. This has involved work with the British press, radio and television; recently he appeared with Joanna Lumley in the very successful ITV documentary Greek Odyssey.
Spiro Flamburiari is an enthusiastic collector of watercolours; mainly of subjects related to Corfu. He shares, with Edward Lear, the same affections for the Island, being adamant, as Lear himself said, ‘that no other spot on earth can be fuller of beauty and of variety of beauty’. Taking this into account, he has faithfully, over the years, made himself familiar with the many places on the Island, which Lear visited and painted. During Lear’s time in Corfu, he is known to have visited the Estate of St. Stefano in Benitses, which, at that time, was owned by Spiro Flamburiari’s ancestors. Edward Lear’s social life on the Island covers interesting lives and times.
Spiro Flamburiari’s passion and enthusiasm to preserve Corfu’s heritage, in text and pictures, has resulted in the publication of a Coffee-Table Book, ‘Corfu, The Garden Isle’, which has become a best seller world-wide. Because of his wide experience in tourism, Spiro Flamburiari is considered an authority on the subject. Over the years, he has been involved with a number of tourist projects, both in Corfu and abroad. His most notable project is Helios, a Five Star leisure complex, which was sold to the Club Mediterranee and became its flagship Leisure Centre. Other projects include The Corfu Country Club, and the traditional Four-Star Boutique Hotel, The Cavalieri, with its famous Roof-Garden, which has been voted and ranked by CNN as 13th of the best 50 Roof Gardens world-wide.
His interests include travel, music, opera, ballet and collecting paintings and artifacts. When in Corfu, he and his wife, a well known painter, reside at their Villa, La Serenissima.
Rowena Fowler (Crete)
Having retired from the Department of English at the University of Bristol I am an independent scholar based in Oxford and London. My main fields of research are Victorian poetry and the reception of Classical antiquity in English and Modern Greek literature; I have also taught, and published on, a wide range of nineteenth - and twentieth-century literature.
I first became interested in Edward Lear in the late 1970s, as part of a larger project on writers and philhellenism. My edition of Edward Lear's Cretan Journal was first published in 1984 and a revised third edition was published to coincide with the bicentenary of Lear's birth, in 2012.
For the bicentenary I was one of the group of three (with Stephen Duckworth and Charles Lewsen) who co-ordinated the British celebration of Lear and organised the special service in Westminster Abbey. Also for 2012 I curated a display of Lear's scientific drawings at the Royal Society: Edward Lear and the Scientists: Text and Images from a Bicentenary Exhibition.
More recently, with Elizabeth Wells, Archivist of Westminster School, I have prepared a web edition of an unpublished Lear text, linking it to images of the paintings: Edward Lear’s Grecian Travels: The Journal of a Tour in Attica and Euboea in 1848. We have so far traced a good number of the 150 or so sketches Lear made in Greece in June - July 1848 and are hopeful that more may come to light.
Marco Graziosi (Italy)
Marco lives in a small town in northern Italy where he teaches English Language and Literature at a secondary school; he has translated several books of literary criticism and history, as well as Peter Newell's novelty children's books. He graduated at Bologna University with a thesis on Edward Lear's limericks and specialized in Modern Philology with a dissertation on English versification.
He manages the nonsenselit.org website, which now incorporates the Edward Lear Homepage, created in 1994, and is currently posting on Edward Lear, nonsense literature and Victorian and early American comics at the Blog of Bosh, which also includes regularly updated bibliographies on Lear and literary nonsense. He has been publishing full transcripts of Lear’s journals on a daily basis since 2008, while a study of Edward Lear's picture stories has been in the works for some years, but Marco is starting to doubt it will ever get finished.
Dr. Colin Harrison (Art)
Colin Harrison is Senior Curator of European Art in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, where he has worked since 1993. While Supervisor of the Print Room, he organized the exhibition 'Edward Lear, Drawings and Watercolours', in 1994, which included works from the Ashmolean and from private collections. In 2012, to celebrate the bicentenary of Lear's birth, he arranged the exhibition 'Happy Birthday, Edward Lear: 200 Years of Nature and Nonsense'. This was again based on the Ashmolean collection, which has expanded considerably in recent years and is now the largest and most representative in the U.K. The exhibition included many loans from private collections, and was opened by Sir David Attenborough.
As a curator, Colin Harrison has otherwise been responsible for exhibitions on other British and French artists, and is currently completing a short monograph on Samuel Palmer.
Derek Johns (Art & Corfu)
I came across Lear at the age of about 5 years old when his nonsense rhymes were read to me. Later in my art world career as a partner at Sotheby’s 1964 - 1981, I regularly saw his works go through the rooms and I suppose it was at about that time I fell in love with the island of Corfu and began to collect his drawings and paintings of the Ionian period, from the late 1840s, 1850s and 1860s.
In 2012, I was involved in organizing in Corfu a bicentenary exhibition of his works. At the same time, we commissioned a bronze bust of Lear is put in position at the Reading Room in Corfu in May 2014. Following on the success of this well-received exhibition, I realized speaking with Spiro Flamburiari that no one had ever created an Edward Lear Society, which we began to work on. So finally we are really there, supported by the many luminaries in their various expert fields covering all interests held by Edward Lear.
Derek Johns is an established art dealer in London specializing in Old Master paintings. He became director of Sotheby's in 1968 and was subsequently appointed Head of Old Master Paintings department. In 1981, he became and independent art dealer and has remained in the same Duke Street premises since 1996.
Dr. Stephen Lloyd (Knowsley)
Stephen Lloyd has been the Curator of the Derby Collection since July 2012 with responsibility for managing, conserving and researching the artworks, natural history library and Stanley family archive at Knowsley Hall, Merseyside. He also looks after the great collection of Edward Lear watercolours at Knowsley, both natural history studies commissioned by the 13th Earl of Derby, as well as landscapes collected by the 13th, 14th and 15th Earls. Stephen is an art historian, who received his doctorate from the University of Oxford for his thesis on the Regency artists Richard and Maria Cosway. For many years he was Senior Curator at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, where he curated exhibitions on eighteenth and early nineteenth-century art in Scotland and he is also a specialist in portrait miniatures. From 2004 to 2010 he was President of ICOM’s international committee for museums and collection of fine art.
Michael Montgomery (Literature & Poetry)
Michael Montgomery’s interest in Edward Lear was first sparked by a visit over forty years ago to Agnew’s annual exhibition of watercolours. Unable to afford the prices that even then Lear commanded, he was leaving by the rear entrance when he noticed a set of eight of his lithographs of Italian mountain villages. Although they were not officially for sale, he was told that he could have them all for £70 – an offer he gratefully accepted (today they fetch more than £2000 each).
Inspired then to find out as much as he could about the artist, he swiftly came to admire him as a remarkable human being, not only for his talents in a range of different fields including, in addition to the poetry which had made him a household name the world over, travel writing, singing and even composing (setting many of his friend Tennyson’s poems to music), but also for the manner in which he succeeded in overcoming the daunting handicaps of penury, humble origins, poor health and above all epilepsy (then considered akin to madness) to become dearly loved at all levels of society, right up to Queen Victoria herself.
Aside from the travelogues, he was able to draw on Lear’s surviving minutely-detailed diaries covering the last thirty years of his life and his voluminous correspondence – he once claimed to have written thirty letters before breakfast, and his almost weekly reports to his eldest sister Ann more than adequately cover the previous twenty years after his arrival in Rome in 1837 at the age of twenty-five.
He subsequently published Lear’s Italy in 2005 describing Lear’s travels in his adopted homeland where he was often the first Englishman that had ever been seen in some of the remoter areas, once being arrested in mistake for Lord Palmerston who was a vocal critic of the Papal regime. In 2012 he published his biography The Owl and the Pussy Cats: Lear in Love, the Untold Story, which demolishes the theory sometimes voiced that because he never married, Lear must have been homosexual, and shows that in fact nothing could have been further from the truth: ‘I wish to goodness I could get a wife,’ Lear had written to Ann from Rome, and almost at the end of his life had bemoaned ‘the women I have missed.’ He has now completed a screenplay under the same title.
His other works include novels, a travelogue All Out For Everest (hailed by the BBC as ‘a must for all armchair travellers’) describing a pioneering overland trek from London to the Base Camp, and historical works to do with the still-ongoing mystery of the disappearance in 1941 of the cruiser HMAS Sydney with all 645 hands (including his own father).
Michael Morpurgo (Children's Literature)
Michael Morpurgo began writing stories in the early '70's, in response to the children in his class at the primary school where he taught in Kent. One of the UK’s best-loved authors and storytellers, Michael was appointed Children’s Laureate in 2003. He has written over 130 books, including The Butterfly Lion, Kensuke’s Kingdom, Why the Whales Came, The Mozart Question, Shadow, and War Horse, which was adapted for a hugely successful stage production by the National Theatre and then, in 2011, for a film directed by Steven Spielberg. His book, Private Peaceful has been adapted for the stage by Simon Reade and has now been made into a film, directed by Pat O'Connor. Michael was awarded the OBE for his writing in 2006.
A son and grandson of actors, Michael has acting in his blood and enjoys performing live adaptations of his books with the folk singers Coope Boyes and Simpson and the singer John Tams, the author of many of the songs in War Horse at the National Theatre. Recent appearances on stage include performances in Toronto and Dallas and in New York he joined the cast of War Horse on Broadway.
Michael's books have been translated into many languages including Chinese, Bulgarian and Hungarian, Hebrew and Japanese. He travels all over the UK and abroad talking to children, telling his stories and encouraging them to tell theirs.
With his wife Clare, he set up the charity Farms for City Children, which offers children and teachers from inner-city primary schools the chance to live and work in the countryside for a week. Over 100,000 children have visited the three farms run by the charity since it began in 1976. Teachers frequently comment that a child can learn more in a week on the farm than a year in the classroom. HRH The Princess Royal is Patron of the charity. The couple were awarded MBE's for their work in education.
Dr. Robert McCracken Peck (Zoology & Natural History)
Robert McCracken Peck is a naturalist, writer and historian with a special interest in the intersection of science, history, and art. As Senior Fellow of Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, North America’s oldest natural history museum and environmental research institution (now part of Drexel University), he has chronicled historical and contemporary scientific research expeditions in South America, Africa and Asia. He has lectured and published widely on subjects dealing with the history of science, the history of exploration, and the history of art, and guest-curated art and science exhibitions throughout the United States.
In the spring of 2012 Peck organized and curated an exhibition on the natural history paintings of Edward Lear at the Houghton Library, Harvard University, which cares for more than 4000 paintings by Lear, the largest such collection in the world. He is now writing a book on the natural history paintings of Edward Lear that will be published by David R. Godine in 2015.
With degrees in art history and history from Princeton University and the University of Delaware, Peck has held fellowships at The Yale Center For British Art (in 1997) and Houghton Library, Harvard University (in 1995 and in 2011) . In 2013 he was a visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome.
Dr. Seamus Perry (Tennyson)
Seamus Perry is a Fellow of Balliol College and an Associate Professor in the Oxford University English Faculty, of which he is presently chair. He has published on various aspects of Romantic, Victorian, and modern poetry, including books about Coleridge, Tennyson, and T.S. Eliot. His interest in Edward Lear stems principally from his readings both in Tennyson and in Auden, whose response to Lear forms the subject of a chapter in a forthcoming collection of essays edited by James Williams entitled Edward Lear and the Play of Poetry (Oxford University Press).
There was once a voice, who sang like the waking dawn to us in the early years of the ‘fifties. As the owls, which were bearing the farm away, the words of Dylan Thomas carried our hopes and our dreams on brown wings somewhere beyond sense and halfway to heaven. There was really not much imagination or incitement in those doldrums of postwar time, and his wild words, so carefully wrought in the nightingales of verse, were our bards and minstrels. He was a funny curly fellow, too, beer-brightness and belly-laughter with his tales of Welsh innocents in the bad pubs of the city, and a regret for the lost wonder of the gills and the spinneys and the fields.
Roistering and raving, firing with vertigos like another Baudelaire, Dylan was for us a release and a delight, an earthy spirit. We were an inhibited generation of war children, rationed and deprived. Then Dylan deluged us with all the treasures of Myfanwy Price’s general store, gobstoppers, jellybabies, hundreds and thousands for the mouth and the mind. When we heard his poems, we knew that there was much living to be gotten.
Dylan was the best speaker of himself, with his rich voice enjoying hugely what he had written. When I made the film of Under the Milk Wood with Richard Burton, he said that the greatest play for voices ever written was all about “religion, sex and death…and a comic masterpiece.” Burton also told me that Dylan had insisted on reciting to him the finest poem in the English language. It ran:
HE, SHE, IT IS
Dylan was the bard of our being. We were allies in what he wrote. When I later tried to catch his complexity in a biography, Caitlin would be kind about the lack of success of my writing: “You have picked the plums and touched the living quick of the Dylan situation with penetrating insight…What baffles me is from whence first did your passion and your understanding come?” I do not know, but I only know this. By Dylan’s own words shall we know him, and perhaps ourselves, a little more, for better and worse.
Since I was young and easy under the apple boughs, I had wanted to write of Dylan the Bard, where the trail began in a time before time. So as he wrote in Under Milk Wood, I tried to begin at the beginning. In making the film, luck exceeded incredulity and vanished into Celtic mist. Like a necromancer juggling the elements, any Merlin of the screen has to mix the gold of the backers with the starts in their courses and come up with a horoscope that guarantees the unlikely. To go at all, Under Milk Wood had to find a time when Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Peter O’Toole were all available to work and in England, which was rather like fixing a week-end between Merlin, Queen Elizabeth the Second and Puck. Then the gold had to be conjured in a double-quick time from the state and a merchant bank, both of whom were rightly foolish enough to buck the wisdom of Wardour Street and think there could be profit as well as art in the wild warm words of that people’s poet, Dylan Thomas.
Of course I had to decide at the outset that I was, in fact, dealing with a magical piece of work. Dylan originally did not distinguish the living from the dead in his voices. The question was, do you give all the dead green rotting faces and some semblance of being ‘really’ dead and bring them back as spooks? Or do you make them just like the living? You see them and it doesn’t matter whether they are dead or alive. I’m Scotch-Irish and very Celtic in my thinking. I see dead people and there is no problem about it: they just appear and then they go away again. And there are too many instances of the dead turning up to visit – particularly in the Welsh regions – for anyone to bother worrying about it.
Most of my starts indeed, in Under Milk Wood are now dead. But they live forever on the screen, part of an inspired, almost enchanted village life. The film is extremely irrational. It is magical, it is like an incantation – you can just see it going over and over again, like the cycles of the night to day, full moon to full moon, dream to sense, the quick to the dead and back again. It is inevitable to wonder why it all came together this way. Those who are religious believe it is a great advantage to be serving something greater than yourself – in this case, the dead Dylan and his poetry in the place he was writing about. All I know with certainty is that I was making the film for one person – who was dead – and his widow came up to me after the first performance and said “that is just what Dylan would have liked”.
In his rollicking use of language, Dylan was the heir of Edward Lear, particularly in the unfinished novel Adventures in the Skin Trade, which I adapted for the young David Hemmings and the stage. We showed the Welsh poet’s fantastic side at the Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, when he handed round a saucepan of boiled string and went off with a Soho girl, whose head was a rosebush. As if Lear, he became oiled in the oily verse and wrote a play plot from a Womb with a View. Its title? ‘Spajma and Salnady or Who Shot Emu?’ We are all the heirs of that genius of verbal firecrackers, Edward Lear, who has made us dance and chuckle to the end of our days, as Dylan did in his ultimate swansong. Both endlessly tickle our ears.