Skip to main content

Portrait of a cat.Ashmolean Museum

Title: The Natural History of Edward Lear, New Edition

Author: Robert McCracken Peck

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Pages: 240

If you read Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussy-Cat as a child, perhaps it was with Lear’s own simple, almost childish black-and-white illustrations. There’s a good chance, though, that the illustrations were by someone else. If you had children in the 90s, or are a child of the 90s, for instance, you might be more familiar with Jan Brett’s eye-catching, hyper-realistic colour artwork. Like Beatrix Potter, Brett took a zoomorphic approach: her owl and pussycat look like actual animals who just happen to be dressed in dungarees and a dirndl dress. And you might have assumed that Brett et al were doing Lear a service by bringing his poem to vivid life. Poetry and limericks were, after all, his wheelhouse; art just a side gig.

But as Robert McCracken Peck shows us in his The Natural History of Edward Lear, when it comes to realistic animal portraiture, Lear could have run circles around any of his successors. He simply chose not to.

Even his fans are likely to be unaware that, for a brief period starting in the 1830s, following a stint as a medical illustrator and before he produced the nonsense verse that made him famous, Lear made a living – albeit barely – by painting birds and animals for scientific publications. Many consider his ornithological paintings to be some of the most beautiful ever produced, on a par with those of John James Audubon, who was both a contemporary and an admirer of Lear’s. Only Audubon, though, remains a household name in their briefly shared field.

This once obscure aspect of Lear’s output has now come to glorious light thanks to the efforts of Peck and Sir David Attenborough, who became friends while collaborating on a 1985 documentary about Audubon, The Million Pound Bird Book (Audubon was a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, now Drexel University, where Peck is a senior fellow and curator of art and artifacts). Attenborough first suggested the idea of a book about Lear’s natural history paintings to Peck around that time – he’d come across the work firsthand and been gobsmacked by it. The book finally got underway a decade or so later, when Peck secured subsequent fellowships at Harvard and Yale, both of which have important holdings of Lear’s art. (Canada’s sole public Lear holding is at McGill’s Blacker-Wood Collection. Peck describes the collection, plates from which appear in his book, as “extraordinary”). Originally published in 2016, The Natural History of Edward Lear has just been released in a new edition by Princeton University Press, who took over after Peck’s previous publisher, Godine, was sold and got out of the art-book game. Peck took advantage of the transition to expand the book with new research on Lear, additional plates from private collections, as well as a foreword by Attenborough.

Red and Yellow Macaw, lithograph.digiuser/Harvard University

The 20th of 21 children born to a north London stockbroker, Lear had to hustle for his living from an early age after the family fell upon hard times and he was left to be raised by his sister. Lear had no formal training in art or science, which Peck thinks may have helped free him creatively. He also had the good fortune to enter natural history at a time when the field was going gangbusters, in no small part because of Charles Darwin’s recent exploits, in an economically booming Great Britain.

Parrots soon became Lear’s passion and specialty (he even has one – Lear’s macaw – named after him.) His Illustrations of the Family of the Psittacidae, or Parrots, begun when he was a slip of 18, was the first English natural history book about a single family of birds. Its images, many of which appear in Peck’s book, are truly a wonder. The delicacy and accuracy of the line work, vividness of colour, the texture of the birds’ feathers, even the character of the birds themselves, are all palpable, even in reproduction. There, peeping out of the forehead of a blue-and-yellow macaw, is the beautiful pea-green of the owl and the pussycat’s boat. Browsing the paintings, it’s hard to reconcile Lear the bringer-to-life of fauna and fowl with Lear the casual doodler who never quite mastered the human figure. The dead-serious spectacled owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata) on the frontispiece of Peck’s book doesn’t look like he’ll ever be in the mood to whip out a guitar, or a runcible spoon for that matter.

Peck, among the lucky few to have seen Lear’s paintings in person, describes them as “absolutely breathtaking,” and notes that because they’ve never been exposed to light, they still look as fresh as the day they were created. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who painted from dead specimens and skins, Lear preferred to work from living creatures, which he was able to do thanks, in part, to the recent establishment of the London Zoo, whose initial purpose was chiefly scientific. But Lear also had a number of benefactors and patrons who gave him access to animals in their private collections. The most important of these was Lord Stanley, the 13th Earl of Derby, who invited the impecunious Lear to his sprawling estate near Liverpool, where they bonded over a mutual love of parrots, and where Lear was able to paint the inhabitants of the earl’s massive menagerie and aviary.

Eagle Owl, lithograph.Drexel University

Lord Stanley was also a key promoter of Lear’s parrot monograph. Like other scientific books of the time, the book was distributed via subscription, which involved limited numbers of hand-painted lithographic plates being produced and sent to paying subscribers (Peck likens the system to a Book of the Month club). The final book was bound only after all plates were finished, often after many years, with the text written only at the very end.

Some of the most fascinating images in Peck’s book are Lear’s test sketches of birds, which, surrounded by daubs of colour and jotted notes, give us a window into his process. Also beguiling are his watercolours of various Australian fauna – Tasmanian devils, quolls, kangaroos and wallabies. Australia held a particular fascination for Lear, making it all the more curious, as Peck points out, that the country and its cities barely featured in Lear’s limericks, despite the excellent rhyming possibilities.

Why did Lear’s natural history paintings remain secret for so long? Peck gives a few reasons. One is that Lear’s biographers have mostly taken a literary approach, and treated the natural history work as a sidebar. (From his own natural history perch, Peck, unsurprisingly, sees the paintings as the creative highpoint of Lear’s life.) Inaccessibility is another reason. Lear’s ornithological paintings were sold to individual patrons and never published, or published only in science books that his biographers either were unaware of or couldn’t easily find. Only two copies Illustrations of the Family of the Psittacidae, or Parrots, for example, survive in their entirety. Like many other folio-sized ornithological monographs from the era, Lear’s would almost certainly have been broken up, their spectacular plates cut out and sold as standalone artworks over the ensuing century.

As admired as they were in their day, Lear’s natural history paintings earned him barely a dime. The parrot monograph even pushed him into the red. They did, however, serve to establish Lear’s reputation as an artist and all-round decent guy. In 1837, he departed England for Italy’s warmer climes, where he gave up scientific illustration for landscape painting. Though birds did appear in his future work, they were more likely to be perched on a bonnet or beard than on a branch. One case in point is a certain Old Man “ … on whose nose,/Most birds of the air could repose; /But they all flew away,/At the closing of day,/Which relieved that Old Man and his nose.”

Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct