How Edward Lear’s artistic genius led to the Owl and the Pussycat | Edouard Lear
He is best known for sending an owl and a kitten out to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat. But before taking up the quill to write poetry, Edward Lear was a highly regarded natural history painter, whose lifelike portraits of birds and mammals were among the most sought-after scientific illustrations of his day.
Now a new pocket edition of Edward Lear’s natural history, seeks to rekindle interest in Lear’s “important” work as a talented natural historian, with 13 unpublished illustrations that highlight the relationship between the Victorian author’s art and his literature.
The paperback expands on a previous edition, first published in fabric in 2016 with a limited edition. It includes a new chapter on Lear’s fascination with pets, like his own beloved cat – which he has drawn on multiple occasions – and dogs owned by his family and friends.
The book includes a preface by Sir David Attenborough, a longtime fan of Lear’s natural history portraits. The ninety-year-old Attenborough, 94, said he was in his twenties and saw, for the first time, a magnificent print of a toucan that Lear had illustrated: to the viewer … it was not a portrait of a stuffed specimen, but of a living being.
For an artist, to excel at portraying the particular physical characteristics of a creature with scientific precision, while simultaneously conveying the character and temperament of a living creature is a “skill so rare,” writes Attenborough, that Edward Lear can “be considered one of the greatest of all natural history painters”.
Lear often blended the qualities of humans and animals in his poetry, either giving animals human characteristics or giving animal traits to the humans he wrote about. And that’s reflected in his groundbreaking illustrations, says Robert Peck, author of the new book and curator of art and artifacts at the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
“Most of the scientific illustrations to this day, done by other artists, were very rigid and mostly made from dead specimens. Lear insisted, whenever he could, on working from living specimens. These are real portraits of people and personalities, as well as depictions of this species – you feel like you are meeting another living creature, which he saw on a human scale, ”he said. Lear’s talent for illustration emerged at a young age: his first published work, when he was only 19, was not a collection of poetry but an illustrated monograph on the parrots he had. seen at London Zoo.
He found these birds “absolutely intriguing and bewitching,” according to Peck. In fact, he only started writing his famous nursery rhymes after being commissioned by Edward Smith-Stanley, the 13th Earl of Derby – a naturalist who owned England’s largest menagerie in his stately home near Liverpool – to illustrate his parrots.
“When Lear first arrived at Knowsley Hall, he was treated like one of the clerks and ate with the servants in the basement,” Peck said. “But he was so good with kids that Lord Derby’s grandchildren loved spending time with him. He would tell them funny stories, draw little cartoons, and invent these limericks – and that’s where all of his children’s writing began: in the servants quarters of the Great Hall.
Lear, who was the penultimate of Ann and Jeremiah Lear’s 21 children, was an entirely self-taught artist. He benefited greatly from Derby’s patronage and financial support and by the time he reached his mid-thirties he was a well-regarded painter in high society. In 1846 he was appointed Queen Victoria’s personal drawing teacher. His landscape of Osborne House, alongside Lear’s upper illustration of the same view, is printed in Peck’s book.
When the poet finally published his Book of nonsense, also in 1846, he gave priority to his work as a scientific illustrator. “He wanted to be taken seriously as a natural history painter, and he was embarrassed by limericks. He thought that putting his name on it could tarnish his reputation and undermine his credibility as a scientific artist, ”said Peck. “So when he first posted his limericks, he did so anonymously, using the pseudonym ‘Old Derry down Derry’. It was later, when he realized how popular they were, that he was ready to acknowledge his paternity.
The anthropomorphism of his paintings, combined with the zoomorphism of his poetry, reflects Lear’s belief that animals and birds were superior to humans in many ways, according to Peck. He has spent the past 25 years researching his book, reading thousands of Lear letters, many of them unpublished, and viewing hundreds of Lear illustrations in museums and private collections.
Peck was inspired to write the book after visiting the home of a friend who had a Lear’s painting of an Australian opossum on his wall.
This 30-year-old friend was Attenborough: “I was at his house for dinner and I said, ‘This is the most beautiful opossum painting I have ever seen. That he has done?’ And he said it was Edward Lear, and no one knows he was also an amazing and very important painter in natural history subjects.
“And every time I saw him after that, he’d say, ‘Lear is such an interesting character, and nobody’s done a book on it, and I think you’re the right person to do it.’ And so it was David who encouraged me to write this book.
The new chapter of the book focuses on Lear’s relationship with wildlife and the natural world after abandoning his career as a science illustrator. “There is a wonderful portrait of a cat in the book which has never been published before and which is in a private collection in England. This not only reflects his talent as a scientific illustrator, but also his affection for cats, ”said Peck. “The animals he didn’t like were dogs. He had a real dislike for them. He always refers to them in negative terms – whenever he meets one on a trip, he says how vicious they are.
In his limericks, dogs are also depicted in a negative context. “He calls them cursed and, in one case, talks about a puppy that ends up devouring its owner. He was really afraid of dogs.
Despite this, says Peck, “he, out of necessity, painted some pretty wonderful dog portraits, because he had clients who asked him to do so.” These “reluctant” portraits of dogs are among those first published in the book.