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Around the galleries

Edward Lear’s nature, nonsense and brilliance

— October 2012

Associated media

Edward Lear (1812–1888), Beachy Head, 1862 Oil on canvas, c. 74 x 102 cm © Private Collection

The Ashmolean Museum’s autumn exhibition ‘Happy Birthday Edward Lear: 200 Years of Nature and Nonsense’ is, as its title shouts out, a celebration of the bicentenary of Edward Lear (1812–88), artist and writer. Marking 200 years since his birth, the museum takes a fresh look at Lear, the artist, bringing together a stunning selection of his paintings, watercolours and drawings, notably with 100 works from its own collection, loans from the Bodleian Library and rarely seen works from private collections.

Edward Lear was born on 12 May 1812, in Holloway, north London, the 20th child of Ann and Jeremiah Lear. His bicentenary is being marked with events, exhibitions and conferences in museums and libraries throughout Europe and the USA. There can be few adults in the English-speaking world who did not learn as a child an Edward Lear nonsense poem such as ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, or ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’, but how many recognize Lear as an accomplished artist?

At the exhibition’s preview Sir David Attenborough spoke passionately about Lear, whom he considers a much-neglected artist. Lear first came to note as an ornithological draughtsman with Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots (1830–2), the first book to be devoted to a single species – Sir David commented on his extraordinary skill:

Arguably, Lear was the finest ornithological artist ever; and he achieved that pinnacle at the age of 18; the feather drawings [in the exhibition]he drew when he was in his teens, maybe at the age of 17. He was the son of a failed businessman; he had to earn his own living, he did so as a draughtsman drawing ‘morbid drawings’ of diseases. He then met people from the zoological society and ornithologists, and he started drawing birds...he invented the genre. The parrot drawings [in the exhibition]come from a book that this 18-year-old boy decided to produce;  a definitive work to show as many species of the bird as he could; he drew the plates himself and he published them...

Lear enlisted subscribers to publish his book but it failed owing to financial difficulty. Nonetheless, it did not stop his love for the subject of birds and animals; he later illustrated Gleanings from the Menagerie at Knowsley (1846). It was during his visits to Knowsley Hall, Lancashire, that he invented nonsense poetry and alphabet drawings for Lord Derby’s children. Copies of these are on display in the exhibition but it is the stunning oil paintings that draw in the visitor, to study Lear’s gift as a painter. He took up oil painting in 1838, completing his first work in 1840.

Lear always wanted to be remembered as a landscape artist. Owing to epilepsy, on the advice of his doctors, he travelled extensively throughout Europe and to Turkey, Greece, Israel and India between 1837–74, primarily to benefit from drier, sunnier climates. Many of his topographical works, created in pen and ink and watercolour, are on display including The Temple of Apollo at Bassae, 1849. Arkadia (in Greece) was a difficult location to reach in the mid-19th century;  so too Monastery of Konstamonitou, 1856, Agia Triada, Akroteri, 1864, Trichinopoly, 1874 (now Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu).  Lear no doubt had many adventures.

During his foreign sojourns (some of which lasted years), he created copious drawings and watercolours, often reworking them as oil paintings. Some are on show in the Ashmolean exhibition, including his most prestigious landscape Jerusalem, 1865 (private collection), commissioned by Samuel Price Edwards. Lear worked on it in his studio in Corfu in 1864–5, referring to four earlier oils on the same subject and to sketches and memory. Notable too among the exhibits is his breathtaking work The Plains of Lombardy from Monte Generoso, 1880; and Beachy Head, 1862, about which he complained to his friend Chichester Fortescue, that it took a five-mile walk to reach his viewpoint from the seashore.

This exhibition gives insight on an engaging man who once declared:’ I HATE LIFE unless I WORK ALWAYS’. At the Ashmolean his contribution to art as an ornithologist, topographer, painter, writer, poet and witty caricaturist – see for example Exact Likeness of Me and my Cat, 1884, and Limerick on the Publication of Lear’s Views in the Seven Ionian Islands, 1863 – must surely give pleasure to each visitor to this unique celebratory exhibition.


A small, attractive catalogue is available for £5.00



Rosalind Ormiston
Independent art historian

Editor's notes

Happy Birthday Edward Lear: 200 Years of Nature nnd Nonsense
Ashmolean Museum
Beaumont Street,
Oxford OX1 2PH
On now until 6 January 2013
Opening times: Tuesday–Sunday 10 a.m.–6 p.m.
Tickets: £4.00; Concessions £3.00
Information on lectures, workshops and poetry sessions relating to this exhibition can be accessed on

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