Edward Lear (12 May 1812 – 29 January 1888) was a British artist, illustrator, author, and poet, renowned today primarily for his literary nonsense, in poetry and prose, and especially his limericks, a form that he popularised. From childhood he suffered ill health, including epilepsy, of which he was ashamed, and depression.
"The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
'O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!'"
"Without a about the drawings that Edward Lear dashed off to illustrate his nonsense capture the tenor of the verses they accompany. Exuding a kinetic energy, these illustrations, like the words beneath them, isolate and exaggerate the subject's peculiarities. They authenticate the hyperbolic mode of the verbal text."
"'Nonsense, pure and absolute', as Lear practices it, provides an excellent medium for dealing with ambiguous questions because its nature precludes any clear, unequivocal statement. It is non-sense, admirably suited to areas in which empirical sense proves elusive. Lear creates a multifarious universe which encompasses the pro and contra of many views without relying on the logical consistency that would force value judgements among them"
Perhaps surprisingly, however, Lear's career began not with words but with pictures. He jokes that he "began to draw for bread and cheese' at about the age of 15. He soon became a commercial artist. By the age of 18 he received permission to draw from life the parrots of London Zoo and, from 1830 to 1832, he published in total 42 lithographs of parrots.
The Learian limerick focuses on the singular individual, an old or young "Person," "Man," or "Lady," who is distinguished by unusual appearance, behavior, talents, diet, or dress. In its most typical form it announces the existence of the eccentric, notes his dwelling place, and describes his distinctive features; then it explains the consequences of his peculiarity and concludes with an apostrophe.
Lear had initially produced poems, drawings, alphabets, and menus for the entertainment of the children at Knowsley; these "nonsenses"—and Lear's charming conversation and piano improvisations—had soon ingratiated him with the adults as well. In 1846 he gathered together some of his limericks, a verse form he had first encountered in the joke book <i>Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen</i> (circa 1822), and had them published with his own illustrations in <i>A Book of Nonsense</i> under the pseudonym Derry down Derry.
Lear suffered all his life from epilepsy and melancholia. After 1837 he lived mainly abroad. Though naturally timid, he was a constant and intrepid traveler, exploring Italy, Greece, Albania, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, and, later, India and Sri Lanka. An indefatigable worker, he produced innumerable pen and watercolour sketches of great topographical accuracy. He worked these up into the carefully finished watercolours and large oil paintings that were his financial mainstay. During his nomadic life he lived, among other places, at Rome, Corfu, and, finally, with his celebrated cat, Foss, at San Remo.
Lear at ages 15 to 25 had poor eyesight, asthma, chronic bronchitis, epilepsy, and bouts of depression. But he also had the ambition you might expect of a boy scrambling for an income.
The youngest of 21 children, Lear was brought up by his eldest sister, Ann, and from age 15 earned his living by drawing. He subsequently worked for the British Museum, made drawings of birds for the ornithologist John Gould, and, during 1832–37, made illustrations of the earl of Derby’s private menagerie at Knowsley, Lancashire.
Praised by Ruskin and Eliot, elegized by Auden, analysed by Orwell and Huxley, Lear has never ceased to fascinate and delight. His life and works intersect major artistic currents of the nineteenth century, and his influence can be felt in successors as diverse as Stevie Smith and John Ashbery, James Joyce and James Thurber.