Edward Lear, J. Patrick Lewis and Gary Kelley walk into a bar…


The trio have not come together as the preamble to an old joke. They are in fact, the inspiration for, and the creators of Boshblobberbosh, one of the most beautiful and unusual picture books ever published for children, and more than a few adults who collect this sort of nonsense.

Boshblobberbosh is a loving homage to Edward Lear: parrot-painter and word confabulist, devotee of all things furred and feathered (with the exception of dogs and camels), companion to a cat named Foss, who lived for 31 years*, and a man who was, in all respects, the King of High Bosh.

Although the book is written by prolific author and poet, J. Patrick Lewis, the poems are inspired by Lear’s extraordinary life. With every ‘runcible’ word, tumbling across each oversized page, up one side and down the other, in the rich, almost sculptural thereness of the illustrations, Boshblobberbosh is a one-book argument against the digitalization of print literature, in particular, illustrated print literature.

Mr Lear, I presume

The first page, or two-page spread, is a giant painting of a Victorian baby boy, in frilly dress and spectacles. The poem, entitled Born in a Crowd (which Lear, 20th of 21 children, certainly was), touches on Lear’s lifelong isolation and loneliness. It’s my favourite poem in the book. With lines such as, “But I was my mother’s twentieth child-She couldn’t look after me“, and “For I was my father’s fourth or fifth boy-He couldn’t remember which“, J Patrick Lewis deftly captures the ridiculousness of having so many children (Duggars take note), where, in spite of the multitudes, neglect is an inevitability, even if, as in Lear’s case, older siblings take over the parental duties. Financial difficulties abound in the Lear family, no surprise with 23 mouths to feed and not a Costco in sight, and Lear is sent to live with his oldest sister, Ann, at the age of four. Apparently, his parents had nothing much to do with him from that point on. Ah, where would comedians be without their melancholic childhoods? Accounting firms, presumably.

Each poem, or limerick is a whimsical nod to Lear’s life and/or work. In The Creatures Wearing Clothes,

Pre-pre Raphaelite

Lewis makes Lear the subject of interest at the zoo, where the animals observe a ‘lad perched upon a limb’, sketching the parrots. In fact, Lear worked for the Zoological Society from 1832 to 1836, and was a well-known illustrator before publishing The Book of Nonsense in 1846, and his most famous work, The Owl and the Pussycat, in 1867. His artistic career even included a short-lived gig teaching Queen Victoria how to draw. This particular episode in Lear’s life is humourously captured in The Queen Takes Drawing Lessons, which is accompanied by what appears to be the fruit of that lesson, the queen’s self-portrait: roughly sketched, arms crossed, with eyes askew à la Picasso. Not a bad likeness, although the Queen is definitely not amused, unlike the rest of us.

One fish, two fish, green fish, blue fish

Retired to San Remo, on the Mediterranean coast, the never married Lear spent the remaining years of his life with his beloved cat, Foss. In one of the final poems, Old Foss Recalls His Life with Mr Lear, Lewis writes:

After forty-four thousand adventures

Afoot and afloat and afar,

“One more trip in a tub’ll be nothing but trouble,”

You said. “Let us stay where we are.”

I find it extremely touching, and entirely charming, that Gary Kelley envisions Foss as an extension of Lear, be-spectacled and with a preference for the top half of the bed. Kelley’s illustrations, done in pastel, are big warm things, which capture the heft of the subject matter, but also the poignancy, and the humour. The much lauded Gary Kelley has had a number of careers, working as a designer, artistic director, muralist, and illustrator. I found a number of interesting tidbits online, including a 3-part series where he chats quite affably about the arc of his life and career. Part III, included here, is the most apropos to his work as a picture book illustrator. Also, have a look at his great pastel demonstration. From this, one gets the sense of how the illustrations are built, almost like architecture, layer by layer. Whisker by whisker.

Old friends

I have many Kelleys in my collection, but the two most beautiful examples are Boshblobberbosh, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, both published by Creative Editions. In 2005, the Norman Rockwell Museum had a retrospective of Creative Editions picture books, surely one of the first of its kind for a publisher. The oversized format and beautiful design of the books are the best possible showcase for Kelley’s art, short of a wall in a gallery. And Boshblobberbosh is truly, a work of art, in both word and picture.

How pleasant to know Mr Lear, Mr Lewis, and Mr Kelley

*(from first paragraph) Apparently, the cat’s headstone in Lear’s garden states Foss had lived for 31 years, although in actual fact he died at 16, three months short of Lear’s own death. As J. Patrick Lewis notes, it’s not known whether Lear was ‘confused or exaggerating’, but what comes to mind is a line from the song, Mr Lear, by  singer and  fellow word-play enthusiast, Al Stewart:

When I was an old man, I had a cat named Foss

Now he’s gone I wander on

With this unbearable sense of loss

Hmm, can’t imagine getting that attached to a cat.*

*Pure bosh!

Boshblobberbosh by J. Patrick Lewis and illustrated by Gary Kelley, published by Creative Editions, 1998

For an example of Lear’s work, see my review of Lear’s The Dong with the Luminous Nose

The Legend of Sleep Hollow by Washington Irving and illustrated by Gary Kelly, published by Stewart Tabori & Chang/Creative Editions, 1990 (to be reviewed)

Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving and illustrated by Gary Kelley, published by Creative Editions, 1993

The Shoe Tree of Chagrin by J Patrick Lewis and illustrated by Chris Sheban, published by Creative Editions, 2001 (awesome book, to be reviewed at a later date)