This is a joyous celebration of a bicentenary – and Lear, its subject, the most endearing for his modesty, talent and wit. Born in 1812, the twentieth child of an artisan family from Holloway, London, Lear’s career demonstrates an astonishing trajectory of versatility and accomplishment. In his later years, even Queen Victoria enjoyed drawing lessons from him.
Edward Lear’s reputation as a brilliant, quirky humorist is well known. His experiments with language pre-dated Lewis Carroll by many years. His nonsense rhymes, originally composed to amuse his patron, Lord Derby’s children, were gathered together as A Book of Nonsense in 1846, but it was the later addition of his woodcut illustrations, both fantastical and precise, which ensured its enduring success. Many of the illustrations and verses on show are from the University’s extensive collection. Revelatory, however, is Lear’s skill as a draughtsman.
During Lear’s lifetime, his gregarious nature and sense of fun was appreciated by many. His popularity among British friends and patrons was such that he rarely dined alone. This continuing affection was noted by curator Colin Harrison. In the absence of firm plans elsewhere, Harrison acted precipitously:
‘We had no time to approach organizations such as Harvard, who hold over 4000 Lear drawings and manuscripts. In order to honour Lear’s birthday, we had to appeal directly to private collectors,’ Harrison said. ‘Their response was magnificent’. Consequently, many works have never been publicly exhibited before.
Sir David Attenborough, who is himself both a Lear collector, and lender to the exhibition called Lear ‘a joy’. He was, according to Attenborough: ‘…probably the best ornithological illustrator that ever was’. Attenborough praised his ‘fantastic penwork’ and ‘exquisite detail’.
Lear’s work is presented chronologically. It includes watercolours of animals and birds. As his eyesight worsened, Lear switched to landscape. On display are many of his sketches made during his travels in Greece, Italy, Egypt and the Near East, and India.
Lear’s mastery of oils is seen in superb evocations of Venice, and landscapes in the Near East, and Jerusalem. His ghostly, stark painting of Beachy Head is mesmerizing. In this painting, it is possible to imagine Lear’s suffering: epilepsy, ill health and – despite his many friends – a sense of personal loneliness.
As Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote in tribute to Lear’s skill as a diarist and landscapist, depicting:
‘…all things fair,
With such a pencil, such a pen
You shadow forth to distant men
I read, and felt I was there.’
Happy Birthday, Edward Lear. Your friends salute you.