Edward Lear (1812-1888) Though now best known for his nonsense poems and drawings for children, Edward Lear made his initial reputation as an ornithological illustrator, and then earned his living as a landscape painter. During extensive travels in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, he made frequent, evocative sketches that acted as the basis for astonishing oils and watercolours.
Edward Lear was born at Bowman’s Lodge, Upper Holloway, London on 12 May 1812, the second youngest of the 21 children of Jeremiah Lear, a stockbroker and member of the Fruiterers’ Company. Educated by his eldest sisters, Ann and Sarah, he learned to paint in the family’s own art room, and began to earn his living as a painter at the age of 15. He was employed as an ornithological draughtsman from the age of 17, and made his name in the next few years with books of coloured plates, beginning with Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots (published in parts between 1830 and 1832). The President of the Zoological Society, Lord Stanley (later the 13th Earl of Derby), invited Lear to stay at Knowsley in order to produce an accurate record of his collection of living specimens and skins, and this later resulted in the private printing of Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall (1846; compiled by John E Gray, lithographed by J W Moore and coloured by Bayfield).
The stay would also lead to the publication of his best-known volume, The Book of Nonsense (1846), an elaboration of drawings done for the Earl’s children.
In 1837, the Earl enabled Lear to make his first journey to Italy, the artist then settling in Rome for a decade, and establishing himself as a topographical painter. Having suffered from asthma and bronchitis from infancy, he found the Mediterranean climate kind to his health, and returned to England only for short visits. However, he was known in his home country – initially through albums of lithographs, and later through the paintings that he exhibited at the Royal Academy, the British Institution and the Society of British Artists. Impressed by the lithographs of his landscapes, Queen Victoria invited him to give her some drawing lessons. When in England, he also attempted to expand his own technical expertise by studying at the Royal Academy Schools (1850) and working with William Holman Hunt en plein air (1852).
From 1853, Lear spent long winters abroad – in Egypt and the Middle East (1853, 1857), in Corfu and other parts of Greece (1854, 1861-62), and on the French Riviera (1864-65, 1867-70). His last major sketching tour would be to India in the years 1873-75. By then, he had settled into Villa Emily, a house that he built for himself in San Remo. It was named after the second wife of Lord Tennyson, Lear having met and befriended the couple in 1871. When he built a second house for himself in San Remo, in 1881, he called it Villa Tennyson. He died there on 29 January 1888. A year later, a selection of his landscape drawings based on Tennyson’s poems were published in a limited edition. However, by that time his fame as a nonsense writer and illustrator had eclipsed his achievement as a topographer.
His work is represented in the Government Art Collection and numerous public collections, including the British Museum, The Courtauld Gallery, the V&A and the Tate; the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), The Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge), Liverpool Public Library, the Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool) and The Whitworth Art Gallery (Manchester); and Blacker-Wood Library, McGill University (Montreal), Houghton Library, Harvard University (Cambridge MA), the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston) and Paul Mellon Center for British Art at New Haven.
Further reading: Briony Llewellyn, ‘Lear, Edward (b Holloway, London, 12 May 1812; d San Remo, Italy, 29 Jan 1888)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 18, pages 904-906; Vivien Noakes, Edward Lear 1812-1888, London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1985; Vivien Noakes, ‘Lear Edward (1812-1888)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 32, pages 994-1000; Vivien Noakes, The Painter Edward Lear, Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1991