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Edward Lear
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Holloway (London)
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
San Remo, Italy
British painter, draftsman and author Edward Lear was one of the 19th century’s best landscape artists, a superb ornithological painter and a writer who created a new genre of children’s literature with his “Nonsense” books. Despite suffering from epilepsy, asthma, bronchitis and bouts of depression, Lear was an intrepid traveler who created thousands of landscape watercolors and some 300 oil paintings and published seven illustrated books based on his travels. He was born in Holloway, now part of London, in 1812, the 20th of 21 children of a stockbroker. After his father suffered financial reverses Lear was sent to live with his older sister Ann (1791-1861). He received scant formal education. A self-taught artist, Lear began selling drawings by age fifteen and at seventeen began working for ornithologists publishing illustrated books on birds. Lear himself obtained subscriptions and published a book of hand-colored lithographs of parrots. Lord Stanley (Edward Smith-Stanley, 1775-1851), from 1834 the 13th Earl of Derby, hired Lear in 1831 to make drawings of animals and birds in Lord Stanley’s private zoo at Knowsley Hall, his country house near Liverpool. Lear continued to suffer respiratory problems and in 1837 the Earl of Derby and another patron sent him to Rome to regain his health and to explore his new interest in landscape painting. He lived in Rome for the next ten years. He spent his time drawing landscapes of Rome, its environs, and other parts of Italy. He began to paint in oils around 1838. He returned to England in 1841 and again during 1845-46 to publish two books of lithographs based on his landscape drawings of Italy. Lear’s work so impressed Queen Victoria (1819-1901) that she asked him to give her a dozen drawing lessons, which he did in 1846. That year he also published under a pseudonym “A Book of Nonsense,” two volumes of limerick verses and drawings that would eventually make him famous. Lear left Italy in 1848, making a fifteen-month trip to Malta, Corfu, Greece, Constantinople, Albania, Egypt and the Sinai, part of the time with his new friend the barrister Franklin Lushington (1823-1901), before returning to England in 1849. Having decided that he needed formal artistic training, Lear was accepted at the Schools of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1850, but attended classes for only a year or less. He received instruction that proved to be more valuable from the Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), who helped him with materials, colors and composition. Lear’s time in England led to commissions and profitable sales, but his health worsened. His friend Lushington had been appointed a judge in the court on Corfu (in the Ionian Sea; then part of the British Empire), and Lear decided to join him there, sailing from England in late 1855. Lear traveled extensively over the next three years, visiting Venice, Greece, Alexandria, Petra, Jerusalem and Beirut, as well as London, producing some of his best landscapes. Lushington resigned his post in 1858 and the two returned to London. He completed his large painting “The Cedars of Lebanon” (whereabouts unknown) in 1861 but when exhibited in London the next year it was severely criticized and did not sell for the high price Lear put on it. That year he published the third edition of “A Book of Nonsense” and it became a smash hit, leading to other children’s book and songs, such as “The Owl and the Pussycat” in 1867. Back in Corfu in 1862 Lear embarked on a project that ruined his reputation: he painted sixty watercolors in mechanical fashion, first drawing scenes in pencil based on his collection of sketches and then adding one color to all followed by another color, resulting in uninspiring works. He had them framed and sold for low prices. Lear called them “”Tyrants” and over several years produced about a thousand Tyrants, earning him a modest living. He explored various Mediterranean locations until he decided to purchase land in San Remo, on the Italian Riviera near the French border, where he designed and built a house he called Villa Emily, with a studio and an exhibition room. After moving into the house in 1871 he resumed consideration of creating a set of drawings to accompany a selection of the poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), to be reproduced and sold as a book. Although he created 200 drawings for the project, he was not able to find a reproductive process that satisfied him and the project was never completed. Commissioned by the Viceroy, his friend Thomas Baring, Earl of Northbrook (1826-1904), to visit India, Lear traveled there in 1873 for fifteen months, resulting in some two thousand landscape drawings, which he used to later complete oil paintings and “finished” watercolors. His enjoyment of Villa Emily ended when a hotel was built blocking his view of the sea; Lear responding by purchasing another plot that included ocean frontage and built a replacement house, called Villa Tennyson, where he moved to in 1881. He died there in 1887. (TNB 7/2105) Selected bibliography: Noakes, Vivien. Edward Lear, 1812-1888. Exhibition catalog. New York : Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, 1986