Edward Lear is the subject of an exhibition at World Land Trust (WLT) gallery.
Edward Lear is known to many people as a creator of limericks and nonsense verses, and the author of The Owl and the Pussycat. But in his lifetime, Lear was best known as an artist, firstly as an illustrator of wildlife and later as a landscape painter.
Almost entirely self-taught, Lear showed masterly technique, and pioneered the use of lithographic reproduction, a groundbreaking development which remained the benchmark for this art form until the advent of photography.
Edward Lear was born in Holloway, London on 12 May 1812, the 20th, and last surviving, of 21 children. His father, Jeremiah Lear was a stockbroker of Danish descent, and his mother, Ann Clark Skerrett, came from Durham.
From the beginning, Edward was a sickly child, and was cared for by his sister Ann, the eldest of his siblings. His mother, preoccupied by the care of so many children, appears to have had little interest in him.
The Lear family lived in relative prosperity at Bowman’s Lodge, but when Edward was four his father became involved in a financial speculation that failed. Jeremiah served a prison sentence for fraud and debt and the family were forced to leave their home. Ann was given charge of the young Edward, and from then onwards she provided a home for him.
Edward was too delicate to go to school, and he relied on his sisters, Ann and Sarah, for the scant education he received. At the age of five or six, he had his first epileptic fit, which he referred to as “the Demon”. He kept his illness a secret but it bred a feeling of isolation, and throughout his life he suffered acute bouts of depression.
Lear eventually went to school when he was 11, but by the time he was 15 he was earning his own living as a jobbing artist.
The Family of Parrots
This was an age of scientific discovery, and with it came a new fashion for large, lavishly illustrated books depicting the strange animals, birds and plants found in distant lands. John James Audubon’s great work, The Birds of North America, was started in 1820.
In England, Prideaux Selby and Sir William Jardine were compiling Illustrations of British Ornithology. Lear, aged 16, was introduced to Selby, and soon he was helping with his work. In 1830 Lear, aged just 18, made a bold decision; he was going to produce, and publish, his own book which, breaking with past traditions, would be devoted to one family of birds – the parrot family.
Rather than using stuffed birds or carcases, he worked from living subjects. He visited the Zoological Gardens and a keeper would hold each bird in turn while Lear took measurements – a major undertaking, considering the size and nature of some of the larger parrots.
When he was satisfied with the drawing, he would transfer it, in reverse, on to a lithographic stone – and this was, perhaps, his greatest innovation. With engraving or wood carving, which were the established methods of reproduction, the original painting had to be transferred to a plate or a block by a professional engraver. This meant that much of the subtlety of the drawing was lost; inaccuracies and distortions were inevitable.
With lithography, Lear completed the whole process of transferring the drawing on to the lithographic stone himself, thus retaining the original work in its purest form. He then took the stones to be printed and would hand-colour each plate in turn. Although incomplete – Lear only completed 12 of the 14 planned folios – Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae or Parrots was a landmark publication and Edward Lear’s reputation as a wildlife illustrator was made.
Following the success of Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae or Parrots, Lear was in great demand.
He contributed to the Transactions of the Zoological Society, to Sir William Jardine’s Illustrations of the Duck Tribe, to The Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle (1841) and helped Selby with the volumes on pigeons (1835) and parrots (1836), both of which formed part of Sir William Jardine’s Naturalist’s Library.
He also worked on Thomas Bell’s A History of British Quadrapeds, and a volume called Tortoises, Terrapins and Turtles which was not published in complete form until 1872.
However, his most significant collaboration was with the naturalist and illustrator John Gould who used the format pioneered by Lear – folio size plates, lithographic outline and detailed hand colouring – in his own publications. Ably assisted by his wife, Elizabeth, who was a skilled illustrator in her own right, Gould used his drive and business acumen to bring the art of wildlife illustration to new heights, setting a standard that was unchallenged until the advent of photography.
“In this earliest phase of bird drawing, he owed everything to his excellent wife – & to myself, without whose help in drawing he had done nothing.”
In the 1830s, Gould was working on one of his best-known publications, Birds of Europe, and he enlisted Lear’s help. They travelled to Europe together, visiting zoos in Holland, Switzerland and Germany to make drawings. Lear concentrated on the larger birds, including owls and birds of prey, and his contribution is distinctive.
By this time, the Goulds’ work featured more sophisticated backgrounds whereas Lear’s are instantly recognisable by their simple backgrounds, and the expressive quality of his portraits. He also worked on Monograph of the Toucans, which includes some of his finest and most identifiable work.
Writing to John Gould in 1836, Lear signalled that his career as an illustrator was coming to an end. He feared his eyesight was failing, and his health was deteriorating in the damp, English climate. Lord Stanley, now the 13th Earl of Derby, came to his rescue and financed a trip to Rome where Lear would benefit from the warm climate and could learn the art of landscape painting.
This was the start of a new phase in Lear’s life, moving from the intense detail required in wildlife illustration to pursue a career as a landscape artist. For the next half century, he lived abroad, publishing books of travel and topography covering Italy, Greece and Albania, and undertaking commissions for his many patrons.
A restless spirit, Lear was always on the move and was amazingly prolific – his recipe for keeping depression at bay. He wrote: “As for content that is a loathsome slimy humbug – fit only for potatoes, very fat hogs – and fools generally. Let us pray fervently that we may never become such asses as to be contented.”
He flirted with the idea of marriage, and came close to proposing to Augusta (Gussie) Bethell in 1866, but he was destined to a solitary life: “I think as I cannot help being alone, it is perhaps best to be so altogether, jellyfish-fashion, caring for nobody.”
His last home was the Villa Tennyson, in San Remo, Italy. Despite his paranoia about his health, he lived to the age of 75. He died alone, attended only by his Albanian servant, Kokali, who had served him for nearly 30 years. He was pre-deceased by his beloved cat, Foss, who died just a few months before him at the age of 17.
Master of Nonsense
The exotic birds and animals brought back from voyages of discovery prompted a new fashion among the nobility for establishing private zoos. Lord Stanley, later the 13th Earl of Derby assembled a spectacular menagerie at his home in Knowsley, near Liverpool, and he commissioned Lear to be the official artist.
Lear spent many months at Knowsley between 1832 and 1837 and produced over 100 studies, which included a puma, turtles, marmots, a Javan squirrel, as well as a variety of birds. His work was published in Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley in 1846.
Lear enjoyed working at Knowsley, but found the lengthy formal dinners stifling. He found relief by absenting himself and amusing Lord Stanley’s grandchildren in the nursery.
Here he was free to conjure up nonsense poems, alphabets, geography, natural history and botany, all illustrated with his own idiosyncratic drawings, for the delight of his young audience.
He often included caricatures of himself – a plump figure with a high-domed skull, small spectacled eyes, bushy whiskers and loose fitting clothes – seen with his Dongs and Pobbles and Quangle Wangles – and later with his cat, Foss.
From this point onwards, the creation of nonsense rhymes, verses and limericks was an integral part of his life. In 1867 his book of Nonsense Songs was published; the collection included The Owl and the Pussycat, arguably Lear’s most enduring legacy.
To mark the exhibition of Edward Lear prints in WLT gallery, World Land Trust is launching a limerick competition.
Limericks submitted must broadly reflect the history, mission and activities of World Land Trust. The winner will have a chance to meet television presenter and Britain’s best loved bird watcher Bill Oddie.
Limericks can be submitted via WLT's website or facebook page, by email, by post or in person at the gallery. For more information about the competition and for a copy of the entry rules visit the limerick competition event page.
Lear & his contemporaries is at WLT gallery 21 January - 15 February 2013.