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Tuesday, 3 August 2021

Book Review - The Natural History of Edward Lear - Princeton University Press

 


     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,
You are
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
Paperback 
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)

38 comments:

  1. That is fascinating. I knew about his nonsense poetry but had no idea of his work as an artist. Thank you for sharing this.

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  2. Thank you for the interesting bits of information especially abt the owl and pussy cat going to sea! I do remember snippets of the poem but had no idea the author was also a great illustrator and that he goes as far back as Queen Victoria. Who says we do not learn from blogging, I sure did. About Edward Lear and will be goggling to read more abt his genre of nonsense verse and limericks. I think nonsense is very educational!!!!

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  3. An owl and a cat, sweet. I have a book about "unlikely friendships" between animals (I gave it sadly away so cannot say who the author was) - right, if animals can be free in love humans should accept the same! And slowly they do.

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  4. Sounds a wonderful book and I do admire paintings of birds so much done well, such talented people.

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  5. I agree with you that Edward Lear is a magnificent bird illustrator - just a little reservation on my part though, as the greatest ever bird painter, in my humble opinion, was John James Audubon.
    You are fortunate to have such a beautiful book, and for a book that gives 215 coloured illustrations it doesn't appear to be too expensive.

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    1. A choice that many would no doubt share, Rosemary.

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  6. Hari OM
    Another library delight... I need to recheck my wishlist and rationalise! YAM xx

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  7. The color illustrations looks very beautiful, David. I googled his name, and he has written many nonsense verse. Thank you for your nice review.

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  8. Looks like a fine book - Lear was a multi-talented fellow, he was, he was...multi-talented he was.

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  9. Hi David - I love Edward Lear ... like you: "They dined on mince and slices of quince,
    Which they ate with a runcible spoon;" lines 27 to 28 ... he just had a number of wonderful talents ... this must be such a treat to be able to often peruse. I'm sure I've a book on Gould in Australia here - yet to read ... thanks for this - a great addition to August ... cheers Hilary

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    1. He really was quite wonderful, Hilary. Now I will be scouring second-hand bookstores for a book of his verse!

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    2. When you find the book on Gould in Australia, please pass long the title.

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  10. The impossibility of a friendship between an Owl and a Pussycat may well be a metaphor for Lear's own relationships; he is said to have fallen in love with another man who did not reciprocate his feelings, and also proposed to a woman 46 years younger than himself. Behind the incredible talent and the silliness may been have a profoundly unhappy man.

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  11. It must be an extraordinary book because the paintings by Edward Lear were extraordinary.

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  12. Les peintures doivent être très jolies! Bonne soirée

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  13. I had no idea that Edward Lear was an artist as well as a poet. (Everyone knows "Owl and the Pussycat"! The cover is glorious and you make me very eager to see what is tucked in the pages with this excellent review. Off to google his art!

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    1. Ironically, I first knew him as an artist. I borrowed a book from the library when I was no more than ten years old. It featured lots of exotic birds, the kinds of species I never thought I would be able to see, and I remember being totally gobsmacked by one of Lear's macaws. Little did I think that later in life I would travel throughout Central and South America to see them in their natural habitat. I have been very fortunate to be able to travel the world, and it is a great stroke of good luck that Princeton allowed me to review this book. The nonsense verse (and their illustrations) floors me. It all seems so perfect, and so impeccably done, and lest anyone think it is easy to compose, just try it. Lear had an ENORMOUS talent.

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  14. Tiene que ser un libro precioso, me encantaría verlo. Besos y gracias por tu respuesta. Mi blog sigue mal.

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  15. Sounds a wonderful book.

    All the best Jan

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  16. David, how cruel you are. I just purged 200 books, so I can move and now I must order another...

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  17. Sounds like a great book. I had no idea that Edward Lear was an artist as well as a poet.

    Happy Wednesday, David!

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  18. Parece un genial libro. Te mando un beso

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  20. PRETTY AS A PEACOCK by Granny Annie

    The crowd watched in agony as Madeline strutted into the room. Some began to pray that this grand-stander would end her peripatetic movements through the crowd. The dress she wore was sleek and fitted to her titillating form. Her hair was so tall and stiff it looked like plumage on a peacock. Everyone knew she was the victim of a permissive upbringing.

    Madeline's parents were high-society and it was the duty of the host to invite her to the gathering. Still, many wished she was absent. She had a mastery of flirtation and every eligible bachelor was her prey. She was charmed by various colorful bouquets.

    It was sad when a kerfuffle erupted because an orchid bouquet had been presented by a man who was NOT a bachelor and his wife attacked her husband and Madeline. This event came to an abrupt end.

    (Great prompts David! I knew it would be full of bird words so I tried a surprise story.)

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  21. Another great review and I like the poem!
    Take care, enjoy your day and week ahead.

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  22. I'm going to show my ignorance here - I'd no idea that Edward Lear was also an artist, let alone such a talented one! Did you know that Edward Lear made up the adjective 'runcible', most famously appearing as 'runcible spoon' in 'The Owl and The Pussycat', but also appears as 'runcible hat' in 'The Self-Portrait of the Laureate of Nonsense'? Nobody knows what 'runcible' means!

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    1. I didn't know that about the adjective "runcible", Richard. I know there is a kind of spoon with tines like a fork called a runcible spoon. But, I like your explanation better - nobody knows what it means, especially as used in "runcible hat":

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  23. Interesting. I did not know he was an artist.

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  24. I was utterly surprised to learn about Lear's abilities as an artist. He was a part of my childhood from the beginning: some of his nonsense verses were among the first I memorized. My favorite part of "The Owl and the Pussycat" is the verse that goes:

    "They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
    Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
    And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
    They danced by the light of the moon."

    My other favorite was:

    "There was an Old Man with a beard,
    Who said, "It is just as I feared!—
    Two Owls and a Hen, four Larks and a Wren,
    Have all built their nests in my beard."

    His language was such fun, so rollicking and free-wheeling, it makes sense that his illustrations would be noted for their liveliness, too.

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    1. I am not surprised that you are a Lear fan, Linda.

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  25. This post was a lovely introduction to Edward Lear for me David. I had to google the poem so I could read the whole thing. It said Lear wrote it for 3 year old Janet Symonds, the daughter of his poet friend John Addington Symonds. I can only imagine how she must have loved it!
    I'll be checking to see if the library has any of his books.

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  26. All the photos are outstanding as always. Intriguing photo of the Cardinal with missing tuft. Yes, looks like it's growing it back.

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