Edward Lear was the twentieth of twenty-one children born to Jeremiah and Ann (Skerrett) Lear. Financial difficulties led to the dispersal of the family; although the Lears were later reunited, from 1816, Edward was looked after by his oldest sister, Ann. She was devoted to him and encouraged his interest in reading and painting, but the nearsighted, homely, rather morbid child brooded over being rejected, as he saw it, by his mother. His diary alludes mysteriously to another early trauma, perhaps a sexual assault. His inclination to isolate himself grew after the onset of epilepsy (he called it his “demon”) when he was five years old. He always felt that he was not like other people.
At fifteen, he was earning his own living as a draftsman. Within five years, his skill in drawing birds brought him to the attention of Lord Stanley (later the thirteenth earl of Derby), who invited him to Knowsley to make drawings of his private menagerie. There he made acquaintances who would become lifelong patrons and began to create comical verses and drawings to amuse his host’s children.
In 1837, the earl sent him to Italy to recover his health and to study landscape painting. From that time, England was no longer his permanent home. Lear traveled throughout the Mediterranean world and lived in several places, explaining his wandering by saying that his health required a temperate climate, that he needed to make sketches as “studies” for his oil paintings, and that he must support himself by making his work available to wealthy tourists. His restlessness also suggests that he was searching for, and perhaps trying to avoid, something: an all-consuming interest.
Amazingly industrious even by Victorian standards, Lear generally spent most of his day sketching or painting; in leisure hours, he read widely and taught himself a half-dozen languages. Hard work seemed to help ward off depression and epileptic attacks...
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