While I profess no great knowledge of fine art, I have been for as long as I can remember a fan of Edward Lear. I have for years held the opinion that he may lay a valid claim to being the finest bird illustrator of all time. This book tends to confirm that viewpoint.
When Lear first embarked on painting wildlife, the results were instantly stunning. In a time when others were producing images that were flat and lifeless, Lear's remarkable portraits were lifelike, animated and virtually leapt or flew from the paper. His paintings of parrots are classics to this day. As Peck points out, it must be remembered that few people at that time had actually seen these exotic creatures, so Lear's pictures must have seemed even more dramatic to an audience thirsty for views of the wildlife of the farthest reaches of the Empire. Lear, as much as possible, worked with live subjects, enabling him to inject their idiosyncratic qualities into his paintings.
Lear was engaged by John Gould, one of the foremost ornithologists of the day, and the pre-eminent publisher of high quality ornithological works. Gould, a shrewd businessman, was quick to recognize Lear's superior talent and made him a salaried employee. Their relationship was fractious at times, and Lear often felt aggrieved at the treatment he received. He seemed conflicted, however, being simultaneously angry with Gould, and resentful of the manner in which he was treated, yet craving more attention. Isabella Tree, in her wonderful book The Bird Man - The Extraordinary Story of John Gould, provides a great accounting of their relationship.
Lear, in fact, painted wildlife for relatively few years, making the transition to landscape art, where his talent caught the attention of Queen Victoria who selected him as her teacher.
After Lear left the cold and damp weather of England and moved to Italy, where he lived for the rest of his life, his landscape paintings dominated his work. He travelled extensively, often to remote locations, generally walking, and exposed scenes of exotic life hitherto unknown to most. Interestingly, many of his works were tethered to reality, by the inclusion of people and their animals, no doubt a reflection of his early experience as a painter of wildlife.
In addition to becoming a landscape artist, Lear was also creating a staggering output of nonsense verse and nonsense drawings, a genre from which he derived great pleasure. David Attenborough, in his splendid foreword to the book, (not without a delicious sense of irony, I might add), reminds us that the first owl to lodge in his memory was one that went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat.
Please indulge me while I cite the first verse of this well-loved poem:
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!"
It is hard for me to imagine anything much more perfect than this, and the drawings that accompanied it are no less enticing.
Interestingly, Lear had no qualms about an owl and a cat falling love and going off together, and I cannot help but wonder what a positive force he might have been today when controversy surrounding same-sex marriage and other controversial relationships continue to rage.
All in all, this is a wonderful book, filled with fabulous colour plates, enabling us to get to know one of the enigmatic figures of the nineteenth century. Robert McCracken Peck deserves a great deal of credit for bringing it to us.
The Natural History of Edward Lear - Princeton University Press
Author: Robert McCracken Peck
US$29.95, £25.00 - ISBN: 9780691217239
Published: 13 April 2021
240 pages - 215 colour illustrations
7 x 10 inches (17.5 x 25 cm)