arts and design

How Edward Lear's artistic genius led to the Owl and the Pussycat

He is best known for sending an owl and a pussycat off to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat. But before he ever took up a pen to write poetry, Edward Lear was an extremely well 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 book is seeking to reignite interest in Lear’s “important” work as a talented natural historian, with never-before-published illustrations that shed light on the relationship between the Victorian author’s art and his literature.

The book, The Natural History of Edward Lear, includes a foreword from Sir David Attenborough, a long-time fan of Lear’s natural history portraits. The 94-year-old Attenborough recounts being in his 20s and seeing, for the first time, a magnificent print of a toucan Lear had illustrated: “The bird is shown, head-on, its wings half-lifted in threat, glaring balefully at the spectator … this was the portrait not of a stuffed specimen, but a living creature.”

Lihograph of an eagle owl sitting on a branch

Lear’s illustration of an eagle owl. Photograph: Drexel University

For an artist to excel in portraying the particular physical characteristics of a creature with scientific accuracy, while simultaneously conveying the character and temperament of a living creature is such a “rare skill”, Attenborough writes, that Edward Lear may “fairly be accounted one of the greatest of all natural history painters”.

Lear often mashed up the qualities of humans and animals in his poetry, either by giving animals human characteristics or giving animal-like character traits to the humans he wrote about. And this is reflected in his groundbreaking illustrations, says Robert Peck, author of the new book and curator of art and artefacts at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia.

“Most of the scientific illustration of that day, by other artists, was very stiff and essentially done from dead specimens. Lear insisted, whenever he possibly could, to work from live specimens. They are real character and personality portraits, as well as depictions of that species – you feel you’re meeting another living creature, that he saw very much on a human scale,” he said. Lear’s talent for illustration emerged at a young age: his first published work, when he was just 19 years old, was not a collection of poetry but an illustrated monograph on parrots that he had seen at London Zoo.

He found these birds “absolutely intriguing and entrancing,” according to Peck. In fact, he only began writing his famous nonsense rhymes for children after being commissioned by Edward Smith-Stanley, the 13th Earl of Derby – a naturalist who had the largest menagerie in England at his stately home near Liverpool – to illustrate his parrots.

“When Lear first arrived at Knowsley Hall, he was treated like one of the employees and ate with the servants in the basement,” said Peck. “But he was so great with children that Lord Derby’s grandchildren loved spending time with him. He would tell them funny stories, draw little cartoons and come up with these limericks – and that’s where all his children’s writing began: in the servant’s quarters of the great hall.”

Lear, who was the penultimate of 21 children of Ann and Jeremiah Lear, was an entirely self-taught artist. He benefited greatly from Derby’s patronage and financial support and by the time he reached his mid-30s he was a well-regarded painter in high society. In 1846, he was appointed personal drawing instructor to Queen Victoria. Her landscape of Osborne House, alongside Lear’s superior illustration of the same view, is printed in Peck’s book.

When the poet eventually published his Book of Nonsense, also in 1846, he prioritised his work as a scientific illustrator. “He wanted to be taken seriously as a natural history painter, and he was embarrassed by the limericks. He thought that by having his name attached to them it might tarnish his reputation and undercut his credibility as a scientific artist,” said Peck. “So when he first published his limericks, he did so anonymously, using the pseudonym ‘Old Derry down Derry’. It was later, when he realised how popular they were, that he was willing to acknowledge his authorship.”

Fine drawing of a head of a cat against a pale green background

Lear’s portrait of a cat. Photograph: Private Collection, promised gift to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

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’s letters, many of which are unpublished, and viewing hundreds of Lear’s illustrations in museums and private collections.

Peck was inspired to write the book after visiting the home of a friend who had a painting by Lear of an Australian possum on his wall.

That friend, of 30 years standing, was Attenborough: “I was at his house for dinner and I said ‘That’s the most beautiful painting of a possum I’ve ever seen. Who did it?’ And he said it was Edward Lear, and that nobody knows he was also an amazing and very important painter in natural history subjects.

“And every time I saw him after that he would say: ‘Lear’s such an interesting character, and no one’s done a book on this subject, and I think you’re the right one to do it.’ And so it was David who encouraged me to write this book.”


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