Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense. By Jenny Uglow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 608 pages; $45. Faber & Faber; £25.

“PLOFFSKIN, Pluffskin, Pelican jee!” sing the birds in Edward Lear’s poem “The Pelican Chorus”. The joyful wordplay is typical of the man who created the “Yonghy-Bonghy Bò” and the “Dong with a luminous nose”, made limericks fashionable and imagined odd yet devoted pairs in his poems, most famously an owl and a pussycat. But the nonsense works for which he is best known are only part of his story. He was an artist by calling, a wanderer by habit and an outsider by nature.

Jenny Uglow’s new biography journeys with “Mr Lear” all the way “to the borderlands of self”. The biographer and historian has found a wonderful subject in the affable Edward. She masterfully shows how he became, on the one hand, a successful artist and writer, brimming with “warmth and wit” and surrounded by friends; and on the other, desperately self-critical, closeted, conscious of his owl-like glasses and large nose, despairing of his “demon” epilepsy, melancholy and lonely, “forever roaming with a hungry heart”.

Lear was born in 1812 in north London, one of somewhere between 17 and 21 children. His mother was distant but he was lovingly brought up by his sisters, in particular Ann, 21 years older, and would always feel women were “equals and companions”. He resented his unstable financial start to life after his father, who worked in the City, fell into debt. With a flair for the dramatic, Lear described selling drawings and teaching art for “bread and cheese”.

He had an interest in natural history at a time when expeditions all over the world were bringing new species to Britain. He drew lemurs and macaws at the zoo in Regent’s Park soon after it opened in 1828, and painted stuffed birds and animals at an estate in Lancashire. His watercolours went far beyond accuracy, Ms Uglow says, displaying “intimate perception” and great feeling. His “dizzying sense of the overlap between animal and human” brought out the character of creatures. He had a special affinity with birds. Like them, he rarely settled, always wanting to fly away.

He turned restlessness into a profession by becoming a landscape painter, travelling to Italy, Greece, Albania, the Levant, Egypt and India. He also began making money from publishing the nonsense poems and ditties he wrote for friends. While proud of their success, he wanted to be taken seriously as an artist. Though his pictures are well regarded today, in his lifetime he often had to reduce their prices. Money was always a worry and he relied heavily on friends’ patronage.

Delving into journals and letters, Ms Uglow also teases out the importance of his many friends in his personal life. He never married, and though many papers relating to his intimate relationships were burned, Ms Uglow describes his pain at realising that the great love of his life, Frank Lushington, was an impossibility. Instead, he filled his life with hundreds of correspondents and several close friends including Alfred and Emily Tennyson—“10,000 angels boiled down”. But his most significant friend may well have been Giorgio Kokali, a servant who worked for him for 30 years. Their headstones stand together in a cemetery in San Remo, Italy.

With careful attention Ms Uglow gets to the heart of a man who found joy in the absurdities of life and whose enjoyment of people and the world around him saved him from “the morbids”. In 600 pages, her tome never tires the reader. As she unpicks Lear’s layers, at points she seems to inhabit him. His love of language bubbles through her own, leaving a striking and memorable portrait of the man she describes as “an eerie, queery, sometimes weary, sometimes cheery Edward Lear”.