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‘Nuts about Lear’ cutlery drawer doodle by Ian Ellery

The spirit of Edward Lear will be here

There can be no better day to launch a festival about Edward Lear than April Fool’s Day – the day chosen by ATownExploresABook festival to start celebrating the 150th anniversary of Edward Lear’s Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets. Erica Smith brings us up to date with some of the delights that the festival will offer residents of and visitors to St Leonards-on-Sea through the Easter holiday period.

Lead artist Emma Harding installing children’s ceramic ‘Jumbly’ heads in Southwater Community Centre

This year’s celebration of Edward Lear is already firing on the festival’s website and social media channels (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) with participatory projects for all ages which include making owls and pussy-catscreating doodles with items from your cutlery drawer, writing nonsense poems and recording your favourite tree. The doodle project created by the creative team Erin Brookes-Doolan, Hannah Collisson, Maya Coombs and Alison Cooper has been so popular that offerings from the community will feature in a vibrant new online exhibition created by Hannah and Maya, Nuts About Lear, opening on the Easter Bank Holiday Monday at 11 am. There will be an online private view at 7pm.

Bavard Bar Festival launch on 1 April

Bavard Bar host, Tim Crook, with Dr Robert M Peck’s Lear biography

These days, we know Edward Lear for his child-friendly nonsense verse and illustrations, but in his day, he was an esteemed natural history and landscape painter. We are delighted to launch the festival with a special Isolation Station edition of the Bavard Bar which will include a talk by the American academic Dr Robert M Peck whose new, extended edition of The Natural History of Edward Lear is due to be published in April. Whilst the subjects that Bavard Bar speakers are going to talk about is kept a close secret, you can hazard a guess that there will be a Lear-ish bent to the evening!

Young People’s Outdoor Art

Outdoor artist, Ed Boxall, working with Christchurch CofE Primary Academy, has also explored Lear’s exuberant cutlery characters. The whole school have been inspired to write poetry and their nonsense characters, created out of household and recycled items, will be on display in the rose garden at the top end of Warrior Square Gardens for the duration of the festival. Art work inspired by Lear’s poem, ‘The Jumblies’, will also be exhibited in the rose garden. The festival’s lead producer, Emma Harding has been working with young artists at Robsack Wood Community School and St Paul’s Primary Academy exploring Lear’s celebration of difference in clay sculptures (pictures on the right).

Head to Gensing Gardens to view work by festival artists Julie Gurr, Aaron Hosannah and Victoria George who have collaborated with St Leonards Academy students. On the path leading from London Road to St Leonards Warrior Square Station you will find creative responses to Lear from Dudley Infant Academy, collected by artist Susan Miller. Artist Peter Quinnell’s team have been working with residents in Stockleigh Road and parts of Silchester and Carisbrooke Road to bring nonsense poetry to the streets with a dadaist approach to writing.

Gail Borrow said, “We are absolutely delighted to be able to install our children’s art projects in the local parks once again this year. We have been careful to design all our festival events so that they are either online or activities that can be appreciated by individuals and family bubbles as they take their exercise around St Leonards.”

Artist Lorna Crabbe is one of the many local residents to create a special owl for the Owl Trail.

Owl Trail

A new element to the festival is an Owl Trail. In my role as community engagement co-ordinator, I’ve been inviting local residents to make 150 owls in order to mark the 150th anniversary of The Owl and the Pussy-Cat poem, working with festival partner Hastings and Bexhill Mencap’s Active Arts group.

The owl trail has proved a wonderful way to engage with the community during lockdown. People from Bexhill, Battle and Hastings have all created owls which will be installed in front gardens and windows across St Leonards between 1 and 18 April. There will be an online trail-map to help you find the haunts of all 150 owls. Most of them will be in the heart of Central St Leonards, but there will be owls as far afield as Harley Shute Road for dedicated owl-spotters to find.

Words and music!

Edward Lear was also an accomplished musician and composed accompaniments to Tennyson’s poetry a well as his nonsense songs. Sadly, most of his compositions have been lost. Hastings Thrives charity have been working with young musicians to create compositions inspired by Lear’s botanical creations, whilst students at the Contemporary Music School have been looking at the words to the nine songs from Nonsense Songs, Stories Botany and Alphabets as a starting point to create new nonsense ditties.

Hastings Thrives musicians will perform at an online event broadcast by Isolation Station Hastings on Thursday 8 April. Meanwhile, Felicity Stephens has been working with newly settled families in Hastings to write poems ‘teaching Mr Lear some good sense’. And Jill Rock and local poets will be performing at an online spoken word event with music from the Contemporary Music School students on Thursday 15 April.

How pleasant to know Mr Lear

Edward Lear was a remarkable man in so many ways – the 20th child in his family, he always suffered ill health and was an epileptic – a fact that he kept very secret for fear of being stigmatised.

Whilst he had close friends of both sexes, he never married and it is easy to speculate that if he had been born in the 21st century, he would have been a very ‘out’ member of the LGBTQ+ community.

As well as being a well-known artist – he taught drawing to Queen Victoria – and a travel writer, he loved composing and performing (apparently his singing voice was not as well received as his piano playing). Like many freelance artists, he struggled financially all his life, but he was a very popular dinner guest amongst upper class families. He was something of a ‘sofa-surfer’ – spending much of the time as a guest in the houses of his patrons.

Hastings and St Leonards had a special place in Lear’s heart and he dubbed this part of the coast ‘the golden shore’. His frequent visits here are recorded in vivid detail in his diaries. He was friends with Hastings MP Frederick North – and his daughter, the botanical artist Marianne North. ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ poem was written for Marianne North’s niece, Janet.

Festival Director Gail Borrow with one of the the 3,000 copies of Edward Lear’s Nonsense Songs, Stories Botany and Alphabets that have been distributed to school children and the local community as part of the festival.

Festival director Gail Borrow says, “Through his nonsense writing Edward Lear dissolved the boundary between an outer life of convention and the unconstrained and chaotic world of our imagination. In the fifth year of this annual reader-led festival about a heritage book, we recognise that exploring a book together is great fun but exploring a book like this during a pandemic is incredibly liberating. The festival foregrounds voices which are not always valued in a literary context. Lear’s nonsense humour is valued worldwide and the town’s national and international visitors are exploring with us through our online presence.”

The festival is supported by Arts Council England, Hastings Borough Council, Lottery25 and Sussex Community Foundation. The festival community group’s Crowdfunder was matched by East Sussex’s Building Stronger Communities initiative and raised funds for children’s outdoor art projects and the printing of 3000 copies of Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets. The books have been distributed with festival partner Education Futures Trust to children in the town. 1000 of these young people have been involved in creative projects connected to the festival.

To find out about all the events across the 18 days of Easter, visit the ATownExploresABook website. There are plenty of ways for everyone of every age to celebrate this remarkable man who wrote a poem which is still close to the hearts of us all.

 

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Posted 21:47 Wednesday, Mar 24, 2021 In: Arts News

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