The English writer and artist Edward Lear (1812-1888) achieved fame as a lithographer, landscape artist, and author and illustrator of numerous travel books. He is now remembered, however, for his five volumes of nonsense poetry and prose.
Edward Lear was born on May 12, 1812, in Halloway, one of the last of 21 children of a prosperous stockbroker. His childhood was passed in a comfortable home in Highgate, where, because of his epilepsy and asthma, he was educated by his sisters Anne and Sarah. They introduced him to sketching and coloring. He lacked formal training, but his interest and energy made him a skilled draftsman.
When Edward was 13, his father's financial disasters disrupted the family. A small income enabled Anne to provide a home for Edward. From the age of 15 to 18, he helped support himself by drawings made for doctors and hospitals. A friend got him a commission from the Zoological Society to draw the birds in the London zoo. The 42 hand-colored lithographs of his book The Family of Psittacidae or Parrots have been compared favorably to the drawings of J. J. Audubon.
While working at the zoo, Lear was invited by Lord Derby to make drawings of the menagerie on his estate of Knowsley. In the 4 years he spent there, he became a favorite with the grandchildren. For them he created his first Nonsense Book, a collection of 50 limericks illustrated with delightful nonsense drawings. Trips to northern England at this time woke a desire to paint romantic landscape, especially because close drawing injured his sight. He resolved to go to Rome, where he hoped to sell his watercolors to English residents. Until 1848 Rome remained his center of activity from which he made trips about Europe, Asia, and Africa in search of subject matter for his landscapes.
The need to improve his art induced Lear to invest a legacy in study at the Royal Academy in London. Two years of the slow, outmoded course discouraged him. He accepted an invitation from Holman Hunt to exchange lessons in Italian for help in oil painting. The relationship was fruitful. Hunt became "Daddy Hunt," an artistic support to the older, lonely man. He did a number of oil landscapes between 1840 and 1853 and exhibited the most ambitious of these at the Royal Academy from 1850 to 1853. They did not sell at the price he asked, so he returned to the smaller watercolors and the lithographs for his travel books.
Living much in hotels, Lear met the children for whom he wrote the poems and prose and drew the illustrations that were published at intervals from 1846 to 1877. For casually met child friends he created the inimitable "Owl and the Pussy Cat," "The Pobble's Toes," "The Jumblies," and others.
For the last 14 years of his life Lear lived in a home he had built at San Remo in Italy. He died there on Jan. 29, 1888.
Further Reading on Edward Lear
A complete collection of Lear's nonsense poetry, with an excellent introduction, is Holbrook Jackson, The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear (1951). Although a new edition is needed, Letters of Edward Lear (1907) and Late Letters of Edward Lear (1911), edited by Lady Strachey, are still valuable. Modern scholarship has done much to reawaken interest in the artist without diminishing the reputation of the author. For this more complete view of Lear the following works build an integrated image: Angus R. Davidson, Edward Lear, Landscape Painter and Nonsense Poet (1938); Philip Hofer, Edward Lear as a Landscape Draughtsman (1967); Vivien Noakes, Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer (1968).
Additional Biography Sources
Noakes, Vivien, Edward Lear: the life of a wanderer, London: Fontana, 1979.
Lehmann, John, Edward Lear and his world, New York: Scribner, 1977.