Poet Edward Lear was a genius at writing “nonsense” verse. But the author of surreal limericks was also a serious travel writer, zoological illustrator and landscape painter. Had he been alive today he would have been 200 years old, alongside his great contemporary Charles Dickens.
Children’s author and laureate Julia Donaldson – writer of The Gruffalo – is among Lear’s many enthusiasts and has written a sequel to his most celebrated work The Owl and the Pussycat to mark the anniversary. Lear’s poem tells the story of two animals who go to sea in a beautiful pea green boat. The elegant fowl serenades his feline love to the sounds of “a small guitar”. After getting a ring from the nose of “a piggy-wig” they are married next day by the turkey on the hill.
This romantic and touching little poem has been set to music by Igor Stravinsky and Laurie Anderson among others. It has also been translated into languages as diverse as Bengali and Polish, Cree and Amharic. Perhaps surprisingly, however, Lear’s career began not with words but with pictures. He jokes that he “began to draw for bread and cheese’ at about the age of 15. He soon became a commercial artist. By the age of 18 he received permission to draw from life the parrots of London Zoo and, from 1830 to1832, he published in total 42 lithographs of parrots.
Lear’s lithographs were so successful that in 1832 the president of London Zoo, Lord Stanley, hired Lear to draw the menagerie of birds and mammals at Knowsley Hall, near Liverpool. It was there that Lear’s gift for light verse made him a huge success with the family of the Earl of Derby. More here Edward Lear: Two hundred years of nonsense.