(12 or 13 May 1812 - 29 January 1888)
English artist, illustrator, author and poet, and is known now mostly for his literary nonsense in poetry and prose and especially his limericks, a form he popularised. His principal areas of work as an artist were threefold: as a draughtsman employed to illustrate birds and animals; making coloured drawings during his journeys, which he reworked later, sometimes as plates for his travel books; as an illustrator of Alfred Tennyson's poems. As an author, he is known principally for his popular nonsense works, which use real and invented English words.
Lear was born into a middle-class family in the village of Holloway near London, the penultimate [next to the last] of twenty-one children (and youngest to survive) of Ann Clark Skerrett and Jeremiah Lear. He was raised by his eldest sister, also named Ann, 21 years his senior. Owing to the family's limited finances, Lear and his sister were required to leave the family home and live together when he was aged four. Ann doted on Edward and continued to act as a mother for him until her death, when he was almost 50 years of age.
Lear suffered from lifelong health afflictions. From the age of six he suffered frequent grand mal epileptic seizures, and bronchitis, asthma, and during later life, partial blindness. Lear experienced his first seizure at a fair near Highgate with his father. The event scared and embarrassed him. Lear felt lifelong guilt and shame for his epileptic condition. His adult diaries indicate that he always sensed the onset of a seizure in time to remove himself from public view. When Lear was about seven years old he began to show signs of depression, possibly due to the instability of his childhood. He suffered from periods of severe melancholia which he referred to as "the Morbids."
Lear was already drawing "for bread and cheese" by the time he was aged 16 and soon developed into a serious "ornithological draughtsman" employed by the Zoological Society and then from 1832 to 1836, by the Earl of Derby, who kept a private menagerie at his estate Knowsley Hall. Lear's first publication, published when he was 19 years old, was Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots, in 1830. His paintings were well received and he was compared favourably with the naturalist John James Audubon.
Among other travels, he visited Greece and Egypt during 1848–49, and toured India and Ceylon during 1873–75. While travelling he produced large quantities of coloured wash drawings in a distinctive style, which he converted later in his studio into oil and watercolour paintings, as well as prints for his books. His landscape style often shows views with strong sunlight, with intense contrasts of colour.
Between 1878 to 1883, Lear spent his summers on Monte Generoso, a mountain on the border between the Swiss canton of Ticino and the Italian region of Lombardy. His oil painting "The Plains of Lombardy from Monte Generoso" is in the Ashmolean Museum in the English city of Oxford.
Throughout his life he continued to paint seriously. He had a lifelong ambition to illustrate Tennyson's poems; near the end of his life a volume with a small number of illustrations was published.
Lear's most fervent and painful friendship involved Franklin Lushington. He met the young barrister in Malta in 1849, and then toured southern Greece with him. Lear developed an undoubtedly homosexual passion for him that Lushington did not reciprocate. Although they remained friends for almost forty years, until Lear's death, the disparity of their feelings for one another constantly tormented Lear. Indeed, none of Lear's attempts at male companionship were successful; the very intensity of Lear's affections seemingly doomed the relationships.
The closest he came to marriage with a woman was two proposals, both to the same person 46 years his junior, which were not accepted. For companions he relied instead on friends and correspondents, and especially, during later life, on his Albanian Souliote chef, Giorgis, a faithful friend and, as Lear complained, a thoroughly unsatisfactory chef. Another trusted companion in San Remo was his cat, Foss, who died in 1886 and was buried with some ceremony in a garden at Villa Tennyson.
Lear travelled widely throughout his life and eventually settled in San Remo, on his beloved Mediterranean coast, in the 1870s, at a villa he named "Villa Tennyson."
Lear was known to introduce himself with a long pseudonym: "Mr Abebika kratoponoko Prizzikalo Kattefello Ablegorabalus Ableborinto phashyph" or "Chakonoton the Cozovex Dossi Fossi Sini Tomentilla Coronilla Polentilla Battledore & Shuttlecock Derry down Derry Dumps" which he based on Aldiborontiphoskyphorniostikos.
After a long decline in his health, Lear died at his villa in 1888, of the heart disease from which he had suffered since at least 1870. Lear's funeral was said to be a sad, lonely affair by the wife of Dr. Hassall, Lear's physician, none of Lear's many lifelong friends being able to attend.
Lear is buried in the Cemetery Foce in San Remo. On his headstone are inscribed these lines about Mount Tomohrit (in Albania) from Tennyson's poem To E.L. [Edward Lear], On His Travels in Greece: all things fair. With such a pencil, such a pen. You shadow forth to distant men, I read and felt that I was there.
In 1846, Lear published A Book of Nonsense, a volume of limericks that went through three editions and helped popularize the form. In 1865, The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipple-Popple was published, and in 1867, his most famous piece of nonsense, The Owl and the Pussycat, which he wrote for the children of his patron Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby. Many other works followed.
Lear's nonsense books were quite popular during his lifetime, but a rumor developed that "Edward Lear" was merely a pseudonym, and the books' true author was the man to whom Lear had dedicated the works, his patron the Earl of Derby. Promoters of this rumor offered as evidence the facts that both men were named Edward, and that "Lear" is an anagram of "Earl."
Lear's nonsense works are distinguished by a facility of verbal invention and a poet's delight in the sounds of words, both real and imaginary. A stuffed rhinoceros becomes a "diaphanous doorscraper." A "blue Boss-Woss" plunges into "a perpendicular, spicular, orbicular, quadrangular, circular depth of soft mud." His heroes are
Quangle-Wangles, Pobbles, and Jumblies. One of his most famous verbal inventions, the phrase "runcible spoon," occurs in the closing lines of The Owl and the Pussycat, and is now found in many English dictionaries:
Limericks are invariably typeset as four plus one lines presently, but Lear's limericks were published in a variety of formats. It appears that Lear wrote them in manuscript in as many lines as there was room for beneath the picture. For the first three editions most are typeset as, respectively, two, five, and three lines. The cover of one edition bears an entire limerick typeset in two lines:
Birth: May 12, 1812, Holloway, Greater London, England
View painter's work: Edward Lear (1812-1888)