Edward Lear Biography and Paintings

Edward Lear Biography and Paintings

Edward Lear (1812 - 1888)


Generations of English children were brought up on Edward Lear's Nonsense Rhymes, limericks and songs, but few knew the story of the extraordinary life of this many-sided genius, the most endearing of the nineteenth-century travellers. Born the twentieth of twenty-one children of a London stockbroker who fell defaulter in the financial crash in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, Lear, in the break-up of the family home, was looked after by his much older sister, Ann. Ignored by his parents, subject to chronic epileptic attacks, and asthmatic, the child withdrew into emotional isolation.


His decision to devote his career to landscape painting was taken early on. His already poor eyesight had been greatly strained by working on coloured plates of ornithological and zoological subjects, so further meticulously-detailed work became impossible. Not only that, his weak lungs could not stand the wretchedly damp and gloomy winters. Lear left England in 1837, and became a wanderer for the rest of his life. After living in Rome for several years and having published three albums of Italian views, he began to explore countries off the beaten track, the Ionian islands and the Greek mainland, Turkey, Albania, Malta, Egypt, the Sinai desert, Palestine and, from 1872 to 1874, India and Ceylon.


Round, balding, bearded and bespectacled, Lear, at first alone, was later accompanied by his devoted Suliot manservant, Giorgio Kokali, who stayed with him for twenty-five years. Despite often extremely trying travelling conditions, Lear, hypersensitive to atmospheres, was wildly enthusiastic or gloomily overwhelmed by the new and absorbing sights and fascinating landscapes. Moaning, jubilating, suffering or rejoicing, he wrote down his feelings and impressions in his delightful and numerous diaries and voluminous correspondence. He swung between satisfaction and discouragement, believing one day that his work was of great value because of its accuracy and the novelty of the places he visited, the next, that it was impossible ever to give a true impression to people at home. Having chosen to be a topographical landscape artist of faraway places, perhaps due to his restless and independent nature, impatience with the frivolities of society, a need to hide from curious eyes when seized with epileptic attacks, and a deep loathing for the English climate, Lear was obliged to travel endlessly in search of new material for the drawings and paintings that were his livelihood. Although his Nonsense books brought him fame and some money, he incurred considerable expenses on his long trips, which did not always see proper returns. He sold his landscape albums, published between 1851 and 1870, on subscription, but lithography was a long and laborious activity, and the subscribers were often slow in paying. His wonderful watercolours, with ink squiggles and slashes cutting across light wash, sold for very little, although (or perhaps because) they were so expressive, uninhibited and essentially modern. He thought, therefore, that by producing highlyfinished oils, he would make his reputation as a painter. He laboured at these oils with patience and care, with help and encouragement from the Pre-Raphaelite painter Holman Hunt, and from time to time, managed to persuade patrons to buy them for what were then handsome sums. They were, he felt, of far greater artistic worth than his sketches, although when commissions came for watercolours, he would be happy as well as busy for a while. The struggle to survive seemed never to come to an end for this lovable man of great gentleness, beneath whose unique humour lay such melancholy.


The first stirring of interest in Lear after his death began when Lady Strachey published two volumes of his letters in 1907 and 1911, which revealed his fascinating personality. At this time, most of his work was in private hands. In 1929, a large number of his drawings appeared at a series of auctions in London, as well as his diaries and manuscripts; these were followed by a sale at Sotheby's in which part of Lord Northbrook's collection was offered. While English collectors and critics remained indifferent, much of Lear's work was bought by Americans, notably William B. Osgood Field and Philip Hofer. The greater part of these purchases are now in the Houghton Library at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, which also houses thirty-five volumes of Lear's personal diaries.


Literature: A. Davidson, Edward Lear, London 1938 (reprinted 1968); P. Hofer, Edward Lear as a Landscape Draughtsman, London and Cambridge, Mass., 1968;  V. Noakes, Edward Lear, the Life of a Wanderer, London, 1968; J. Lehmann, Lear and his World, London, 1977.


Exhibitions: Edward Lear, Arts Council,London, 1958; Edward Lear, Gooden & Fox Ltd, London, 1968; Travellers, beyond the Grand Tour, The Fine Art Society, London, 1980.



Labels: famous artists biography
August 24, 2020
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