Edward Lear had an eye for landscapes and an ear for rhyme, but it was neither as a travel painter nor as a writer of comic verse that he first displayed his prolific talent. Between 1832 – when he was just 20 – and 1838, Lear created 80 bird portraits for the naturalist and entrepreneur John Gould. For many, they are the world’s finest ornithological illustrations. The plates were produced using the fledgling art of lithography and coloured by hand. They featured in Gould’s celebrated books, intermingled with the work of other, often less accomplished artists.
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David Attenborough first saw one of Lear’s plates in the 1950s, and was so struck by its precision and grace that he determined to collect them all. When the collection was complete, he had them bound in an original 19th-century leather binding case. Now, to celebrate the bicentenary of Lear’s birth, Attenborough has kindly allowed us to reproduce the entire volume in facsimile. He has also written a superb introduction, especially for this limited edition, and signed each copy.
Lear was born in Highgate, London, in 1812. As the 20th child of a bankrupt and widowed businessman, he was obliged to work from a young age. His elder sister Ann encouraged him to take up painting, and his talent soon became a source of income. As well as painting ladies' fans and providing medical drawings for local hospitals, Lear worked as an assistant to Prideaux Selby, an ornithologist and Fellow of the Zoological Society. Perhaps through this connection, he was commissioned to produce some illustrations for the Society, which were reproduced by engraving. It was a long-established but imprecise method, soon to be outmoded by the subtler technique of lithography, whose leading exponent, Charles Hullmandel, had a studio near the Society’s gardens.
In early lithography, the image was drawn onto a smooth stone using an oil-based medium such as a wax crayon, followed by an aqueous solution of gum arabic. When the ink was applied, it was repelled by the gum arabic but sank into the areas marked by the crayon. Finally, a press was used to transfer the ink to paper. For the young Lear, this new technique enabled an exciting publishing venture: meticulously rendered bird portraits, reproduced with their detail intact and issued to subscribers in groups of plates. John James Audubon had undertaken a similar project some years earlier, but was limited to engraving from copper plates, which blunted the finer strokes of the painter’s brush.
Taking the parrot family as his subject, Lear worked tirelessly, petitioning his contacts at the Society for access to specimens, carrying heavy lithographic blocks between his lodgings and Hullmandel’s studio, and sending out prospectuses to potential subscribers. But the returns were too low to support the project, and he was forced to give up. John Gould – ten years older with a published book of bird plates already to his name – offered to complete the work. He never did, but Lear’s talent for ornithological illustration became central to his ambitious publishing plans. Over the six years that followed, Lear’s work appeared in four spectacular ‘imperial folio’ volumes published by Gould.
In his introduction to this beautiful facsimile, David Attenborough explores the early development of Lear’s artistry, his partnership with Gould, and the innovation and flair that helped to make these bird prints exceptional. Attenborough’s knowledge and enthusiasm make this the perfect introductory text – a fascinating insight into the creativity and ambition of two very different individuals, and the technical advances that helped fuel their ventures.
I first became aware of Edward Lear’s bird plates in 1954. I had recently returned from filming a collecting expedition in Guyana. We brought back hummingbirds, anacondas, caiman and marmosets, but I hankered after pictures of some of the spectacular birds which I had just seen for the first time in the wild. Many of these are depicted in the prints issued by the 19th-century naturalist and publisher John Gould. Among the first I found was one of a Toco Toucan. It was a particularly dramatic composition, and it was signed very emphatically E. Lear. It was then that I discovered that the poet whose nonsense verses I had loved as a child was also a superbly accomplished ornithological artist. From then on, I kept an eye out for more of the prints that he produced for Gould, and this became a decades-long endeavour to collect them all – a total of 80 lithographed plates, to which was later added an original drawing.
Lear’s bird plates, to my eyes at least, rank among the finest of their kind, and I was pleased to have collected them all into a single volume, separated from works by lesser talents. And to know that they will now be available to a broader audience, published together for the first time, is immensely rewarding. What’s more, the work undertaken by The Folio Society to reproduce not only the prints, but even an original 19th-century binding, has produced an edition worthy of this great artist. Bound in full leather, elaborately gold-blocked, it is a truly remarkable reproduction. There could hardly be a better celebration of Lear’s 200th anniversary.
I am thrilled that what began as a private collection has been reproduced for a wider readership – and in a way that has so authentically captured the beauty of the original.
Each copy comes with a beautiful print of the majestic Eagle Owl (unframed).
Read more about the life and work of Edward Lear
Delivery of limited editions may take longer than standard editions. Please contact us for more information.
To recreate Attenborough’s 19th-century binding, we first commissioned an artist to draw sections of the intricate artwork decorating the spine and front and back boards. By repeating these sections, we were able to create a complete layout of the binding design – scrupulously accurate to ensure
proper alignment in the blocked and bound leather. The tannery dyed the leather to match the dark green of the original binding, and it was plated to create the smooth surface required for the delicate gold blocking.
Once plated and blocked, the leather was wrapped around the boards with the utmost precision and the raised bands on the spine were cased in by hand. The motif on the inside corner of each board was hand-stamped using a brass engraved with a design matching the original.
The original binding included hand-marbled endpapers of the ‘Turkish Spot’ variety. We asked Jemma Lewis, whose work also features in our Letterpress Shakespeare series, to recreate them. Using high-quality short-grain paper and gouache paint, Jemma experimented until she had replicated the pattern, using a comb called a stylus to form the swirls of colour with their red and yellow veins. By repeating this process, she created two endpapers for each copy of the book. All follow the original design, but no two are quite alike. From the shuffled pages with gilded top edges, to the texture and shade of the goatskin leather binding, this reproduction captures the elegant aesthetic of the imposing 19th-century bird books in which Lear’s work originally appeared. Each copy also contains a tipped-in limitation certificate, printed letterpress and signed by David Attenborough.
Review by Soupdragon10 on 8th Nov 2013
"My heart sank when I saw this book on the Folio Society website - I just knew I was going to NEED to buy one. Oh how it does not disappoint. From the moment the delivery guy shows up with a box of ep..." [read more]
Review by AliceF10 on 9th Jun 2013
"Having already purchased the Sharpe's Birds Of Paradise, this was a must for me. Throughout my years of book collecting I have shied away from buying prints extracted from books broken up by scurrilou..." [read more]
Review by firstname.lastname@example.org on 5th Dec 2012
"fantastic bookbinding is something to be proud of well done everybody concerned "