Edward Lear was born into a middle class family in Holloway, London on 12 May 1812. He was the second youngest of the 21 children of Jeremiah Lear, a London stockbroker, and his wife Ann. Lear was largely raised by his older sister, also called Ann, who was 21 years older than him. At the age of four Ann and Lear were forced to leave the family home as his father had lost most of his fortune during the upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars.
Lear and Ann set up house on Grays Inn Road, surviving on whatever their father could send to them. At the age of five he suffered his first attack of ‘the Demon’, his own nickname for epilepsy (at the time a condition often misdiagnosed as demonic possession). In his diaries in he often talked of the shame and guilt he felt towards his condition and the depression it caused (which he referred to as ‘the Morbids’).
Lear’s education was solely the responsibility of his sisters, who taught him to read the classics and the Romantic poetry popular at the time. Crucially, they also encouraged him to draw and doodle, allowing him to soon become a skilled artist.
In 1826 Lear's father retired and the 15-year-old had to use his artistic skill to earn a living - illustrating screens, fans and prints, and for some time making disease drawings for doctors and hospitals. His talent as an artist attracted much attention and his skills were soon in demand across London, particularly for his ability to depict flora and fauna. His success was proven by his acceptance in 1830 as an Associate of the Linnean Society, London’s oldest biological society. In that year he also contributed to a study of Parrots entitled Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots which when published cemented his blossoming reputation as an artist.
In 1831 he made the first of many visits to the continent, to begin a series of pictures for John Gould to be included in Gould's The Birds of Europe. This journey was the beginning of his life-long love of travel as he traversed Europe over the next decade, making studies of the local wildlife. Though he returned to England often, he would spend most of the rest of his life in Europe. His skill allowed him to acquire a number of wealthy patrons who financed his travels, notably his good friend the Earl of Derby, Edward Stanley. Between 1832 and 1841 he completed landscape studies of Ireland and Italy. His health constantly in peril, he travelled to Albania, Greece, Egypt and Calabria between 1842 and 1857, often as much from a need to recover in a warmer climate as to paint. However, the studies he made of the landscape and wildlife of these countries are much prized today, depicting as they do worlds little changed for centuries and shortly to be swallowed up by the Industrial Revolution.
Whilst he travelled Lear was a prolific letter writer and he often included doodles and short poems in his correspondence . In 1846 he collected his poems together with drawings to publish his first poetry collection - A Book of Nonsense. The book grew in popularity throughout Lear’s lifetime (unfortunately, he sold the copyright shortly after publication, meaning he could not benefit from the work’s growing success). His poems were hugely popular amongst the British public, popularising the traditional English poetic form – the limerick. Lear's poetry took delight in the sounds of words and the rhythm of language often at the expense of the meaning – which was more often than not, quite literally, nonsense.
There was an Old Man of Peru
Who never knew what he should do;
So he tore off his hair, and behaved like a bear
That intrinsic Old Man of Peru.
He would publish three further volumes of A Book of Nonsense (in 1855 and 1861) whilst continuing with his work as an artist.
Lear would never marry and was prone throughout his life to bouts of loneliness and depression. He is known however to have proposed marriage twice to the same woman, Gussie Bethell, 46 years his junior. She turned him down on both occasions.
Lear was a huge admirer and friend of the poet Tennyson, one of his great ambitions being to create an illustrated edition of his poems. In 1871, with his health in serious decline, he moved to Sanremo on the Italian Riviera into a house he named ‘Villa Emily’ after Tennyson’s wife. There he planned to create his collection of Tennyson poems. In the same year he published what would become his most popular collection of nonsense poetry Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets. It included 'The Owl and the Pussycat', a poem still recited by generations of children. The poem also included his most popular nonsense word ‘Runcible Spoon’ the meaning of which is still playfully debated by scholars and readers today.
Lear had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances and he was often surrounded by a cast of colourful characters – not least his Albanian chef Giorgis, a close companion (though dreadful cook) and Lear's beloved cat Foss. He was reknowned for his absurd sense of humour, often introducing himself to people with a collection of ridiculous full formal names - Mr Abebika kratoponoko Prizzikalo Kattefello Ablegorabalus Ableborinto phashyph or Chakonoton the Cozovex Dossi Fossi Sini Tomentilla Coronilla Polentilla Battledore & Shuttlecock Derry down Derry Dumps.
In 1888 Lear died of heart disease in Sanremo. His tombstone was inscribed with a verse from Tennyson, written for Lear whilst Lear was travelling in Albania near Mount Tomohrit:
Tomohrit, Athos, all things fair.
With such a pencil, such a pen.
You shadow forth to distant men,
I read and felt that I was there.