Edward Lear Biography


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 794 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The humorist and artist Edward Lear was born in Holloway, near London, on May 12, 1812. Four years later, his stockbroker father, Jeremiah, lost his fortune, causing Edward’s mother, Ann, to become withdrawn; consequently, Edward’s sisters raised him. During childhood, he began suffering from epilepsy and depression. Based on a cryptic entry in Lear’s 1871 diary, Vivien Noakes surmises that young Lear was sexually molested by a cousin.

Because of the family’s poverty, fifteen-year-old Edward started earning his living as an artist. At eighteen, he published his parrot illustrations and was nominated for membership in the Linnean Society. His artistic career thereafter consisted of acquiring patrons, publishing a series of travel books (inspired by wanderings throughout Europe), and learning oil painting. To his frustration, he gained little recognition for the last of these activities.

His enduring fame, however, comes from his nonsense writings. These probably began between 1832 and 1836 at Knowsley Hall, where he was drawing the earl of Derby’s private zoo. Lear found there a book of limericks titled Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen. These inspired him first to illustrate others’ verse and then to compose his own. On his second visit to that estate in 1837, he presumed that he would be dining with the servants, but the children of the household had been so taken with Lear’s compositions that he was invited to dine with the family (a status he maintained on subsequent visits). Not until 1846, however, did he bother to publish a collection of 110 of his limericks as A Book of Nonsense; even then, he protected himself with the pseudonym “Derydown Derring” (as if only a daring author would so affront Victorian seriousness).

Every page of A...

(The entire section is 745 words.)