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

A new paperback edition containing over a dozen unseen works shows the nonsense poet’s prowess as a natural history painter

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 paperback edition of The Natural History of Edward Lear, is seeking to reignite interest in Lear’s “important” work as a talented natural historian, with 13 never-before-published illustrations that shed light on the relationship between the Victorian author’s art and his literature.

The paperback expands on a previous edition, first published in cloth in 2016 with a limited print run. It includes a new chapter on Lear’s fascination with domestic pets, such as his own beloved cat - which he cartooned repeatedly - and dogs owned by his family and friends.

The book includes a foreword from Sir David Attenborough, a long-time fan of Lear’s natural history portraits. The nonagenarian94-year-old Attenborough recounts being in his twentie20s 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.”

The new chapter of the book focuses on Lear’s relationship with wildlife and the natural world after giving up his career as a scientific illustrator. “There’s a wonderful portrait of a cat in the book that’s never been published before and is in a private collection in England. It captures not only his talent as a scientific illustrator, but also his affection for cats,” said Peck. “The pets he did not like were dogs. He had a real aversion for them. He always refers to them in negative terms - whenever he encounters one on a trip, he talks about how vicious they are.”

In his limericks, dogs are also portrayed in a negative context. “He refers to them as curs and in one case, talks about a puppy which eventually devours its owner. He had a real fear of dogs.”

Despite this, Peck says, “he did, by necessity, paint a few quite wonderful portraits of dogs, because he had patrons who asked him to.” These “reluctant” portraits of dogs are among those being published in the book for the first time.

• This article was amended on 4 February 2021. An earlier version described the book as new. In fact it is a paperback edition of a book published in 2016, but with previously unpublished illustrations and a new chapter on Lear’s fascination with pets.


Donna Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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