More than any of the five previous Lear biographies...Ms. Uglow’s nearly 600-page book miraculously takes wing, soars higher and provides a more inclusive bird’s-eye view of almost every aspect of Lear’s life ... At various moments throughout this avian journey, Ms. Uglow swoops down to examine and explicate with hawk-like acuity the ludic complexities of Lear’s writings. She brilliantly elucidates the interplay between the drawings and words in Lear’s limericks ... Mr. Lear is lavishly produced and resplendently illustrated with color and black-and-white reproductions of paintings, drawings, sketches and photographs—many of which have been rarely seen. For me there is just one word to describe Jenny Uglow’s book, a word that Lear used to describe a sumptuous dinner party ... splendidophoropherostiphongious.
...capacious and astute ... Among the many pleasures of this biography are its frequent quotations from Lear’s journals and fanciful letters ... Among Uglow’s most valuable and personal chapters are those devoted to Lear’s fantastic, in all senses, drawings and verse. Some of his later poems, such as 'The Dong With a Luminous Nose,' can be decidedly pensive or bittersweet, but as Uglow writes, the limericks in his first collection, A Book of Nonsense (1846), are 'comprehensible as both the foolery of childhood and the foolery of carnival, turning the world upside down.'
Uglow’s approach is more or less to try to cover the waterfront. There is a lot of it to cover ... What redeems the constant travelogue is Uglow’s sympathetic and perceptive view of her subject, as both person and artist. She is well aware of the masks Lear was forced to don as a sexually fluid man in the 19th century...and finds beneath his wit and friendly humor 'the admission that he was in essence a man who would live his life alone, and, perhaps, lonely.' This seems right: The desire for understanding, however unlikely its achievement, is a strong theme in Lear’s writing; has there ever, for instance, been a more tenuous pairing than the Owl and the Pussy-cat? ... If a cat and an owl can be joined, the poem quietly suggests, then surely there is hope for anyone. Lear’s gift is to find his own thirst for companionship echoed in the sense-making elements of language.