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Posts Tagged ‘Edward Lear’

The Master of Nonsense and Wonder

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 21, 2017

by Richard Conniff/The Wall Street Journal

owlandpussycat‘The first owl to lodge in my memory,” the naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough confesses in his foreword to “The Natural History of Edward Lear” by Robert McCracken Peck, wasn’t the short-eared owl, say, or any of Britain’s four other native species. It “was the one that went to the sea in a beautiful pea-green boat.” Like so many other children, Mr. Attenborough was enchanted not just by Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” but also by his Jumblies on their perilous voyage to “the hills of the Chankly Bore” and by “the Dong with the luminous nose” wandering by night “over the great Gromboolian plain.”

Lear, born in 1812, the 21st child of a London stockbroker and his unfortunate wife, became the great 19th-century master of nonsense and wonder. We tend to remember him first for the ingenious loopiness of his language—an imagined world of “torrible zones” and “runcible spoons” and, of course, that “ombliferous person of Crete” who “dressed in a sack, / Spickle-speckled with black.” Lear’s fanciful line drawings—the man “on whose nose, / Most birds of the air could repose,” or the old lady “whose folly / Induced her to sit in a holly”—take a whimsical second place.

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Lear, however, saw himself first as an artist. Raised by his doting eldest sister after their parents suffered a financial reversal, he began drawing “for bread and cheese” at the age of 15, making what he called “morbid disease drawings for hospitals and certain doctors of physic.” His sister seems wisely to have steered him to plants and animals instead, and he flourished at it. Mr. Peck, a historian of scientific discovery and art at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, ranks him “among the best natural history painters of all time,” though that phase of his career lasted barely a decade.

The opening of the London Zoo in 1828 gave the young artist ample material to work with. The zoo was then an exclusive, members-only society, and Mr. Peck notes that it denied access to an older and far better known artist and animal dealer named William Swainson. But Lear was adept enough as a bird artist, and sufficiently socially acceptable, that the zoo allowed him at the age of 18 to make paintings in its menagerie for what would become his first book. Surprisingly, for those who know Lear only as a children’s author, it bore the title “Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots.”

This project soon immersed Lear in the work of finding subscribers and learning to draw backward on rented slabs of limestone. He called lithography “this lampblack & grease work,” and the economics of the enterprise obliged him to erase each precious image after just 175 prints and start over again. But it was a labor of love. He wrote to a friend that “the whole of my exalted & delightful upper tenement” is overflowing with sketches and lithographs, “and for the last 12 months I have so moved—thought—looked at,—& existed among Parrots—that should any transmigration take place at my decease I am sure my soul would be very uncomfortable in anything but one of the Psittacidae.”

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