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Edward Lear, Macrocercus Aracanga or Red and Yellow Macaw from ‘Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae or Parrots’, 1830–32. Closed book 51 x 37 cm© Alexander Library of Ornithology, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

OXFORD.- The bicentenary of the birth of Edward Lear is being celebrated with events and exhibitions throughout the English-speaking world. As the home of the largest and most comprehensive collection of his work in the UK, the Ashmolean is mounting a retrospective exhibition covering all aspects of his career. From early natural history illustrations and extraordinary landscape sketches, to the nonsense drawings and verses for which Lear is so well known, the exhibition presents 100 works of art from the Ashmolean’s own Lear collection and important loans from the Bodleian Library and works from private collections, many of which will go on public display for the first time.

Edward Lear is one of the most notable artists and popular writers of the Victorian period. Although best known for his literary nonsense in poetry and prose, Lear saw himself primarily as an artist. HAPPY BIRTHDAY EDWARD LEAR presents his work chronologically, with watercolours, oil paintings, manuscripts, and illustrated books carefully selected to reflect every aspect of his artistic output. Among the highlights are watercolours of animals and birds; sketches made during his travels in Greece, Italy, Egypt and the Near East, and India; and a group of the Tennyson illustrations on which he spent the last twenty years of his life. Lear’s work as a painter in oils is represented by rarely seen evocations of Beachy Head, Venice, and landscapes in the Near East; and the great view of Jerusalem, painted in 1865, now in the Ashmolean.

More than 30 loans from the University of Oxford’s libraries and private collections will bring together editions of the books Lear illustrated early in his career. These include copies of Lear’s travel books; the natural history publications to which he contributed; and the principal editions of his nonsense books. The exhibition also shows examples of the sketches and self-portraits he gave to his friends, as well as a nonsense alphabet composed for Ruth Decie, who was only a few days old, on 22 June 1862.

“Edward Lear is one of the most extraordinary figures in Victorian England. He was one of the greatest of all natural history illustrators, a highly original artist who travelled more widely and recorded the landscape more faithfully than almost any other, and also an endearing writer whose experiments with words long predate those of Lewis Carroll.” Colin Harrison, Senior Curator for European Art at the Ashmolean.

Edward Lear was the 20th child born to Jeremiah and Ann Lear on 12 May 1812, in Holloway, London. He became one of the most extraordinary figures in Victorian England. Sociable and immensely engaging, he was also an epileptic, prone to long fits of melancholy, and once declared that “I HATE LIFE unless I WORK ALWAYS”. Lear’s earliest work was as an ornithological draughtsman, his outstanding achievement being the Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots (1830–32). Between 1831 and 1837, he was a regular visitor to Knowsley Hall, where the 13th Earl of Derby kept the most important menagerie in Europe, and Lear’s studies of the animals were privately published as Gleanings from the Menagerie at Knowsley in 1846. While he was at Knowsley, he began to invent nonsense rhymes and drawings to amuse Lord Derby’s children. These were first gathered together as A Book of Nonsense in 1846, but it was not until the third edition of 1862, including wood engravings, that Lear’s nonsense began to enjoy the extraordinary popularity it still does today.

It was landscape painting which Lear himself most valued and for which he wished to be remembered. From 1837 onwards, he travelled more extensively than any other painter of the 19th century, recording the landscape as he went in an apparently endless succession of topographical drawings in pencil, which he annotated with the date, time, and a running number for each tour. These he later inked out and kept as a dictionary of compositions for his more commercial work, the finished watercolours he made in long series and, from the early 1850s, the oil paintings he made on commission. 

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Edward Lear (1812–1888), Monastery of Konstamonitou, 1856. Pen, brown ink and watercolour with bodycolour on buff paper, 29.7 x 45.7 cm© Private Collection, courtesy of Agnews.