A review by Rick Wright
The Natural History of Edward Lear, by Robert McCracken Peck
David R. Godine, 2016
224 pages, $40—hardcover
It took me years to figure out that there was only one Edward Lear, that the brush responsible for some of the finest natural history illustration of the nineteenth century was wielded by the same gifted hand that sent that owl and that pussycat to sea. Now, in this elegantly written and handsomely illustrated new book, Robert McCracken Peck introduces us to Lear and his manifold talents, from the famous nonsense verse to the much less famous landscape paintings, and shows how the Victorian polymath’s contributions continue to influence art, literature, and even politics down to our own day.
Lear was born near London in 1812, the twentieth of his fecund parents’ twenty-one children. From the age of four, he was raised by his older sister Ann, who with another sister, Sarah, provided the young Lear with the only artistic training he would ever have. By the time he was 15, Lear was working as a commercial artist and anatomical illustrator. At about the same time, he began his regular visits to the natural history collections and menageries of London, where he first encountered some of the people—and animals—that would help make him the most sought-after natural history illustrator in Britain through the entire decade of the 1830s.
It was the London Zoological Society, its members, and its collections that gave Lear’s career so promising a start, and Peck’s book is at its most eye-opening in its discussion of the far-flung connections Lear made through his work at the Zoo. The eighteen-year-old’s first known published illustrations—wood engravings of a lemur and a macaw—appeared in a zoo guidebook, and Lear was soon hard at work on a complete portfolio of lithographed menagerie portraits, a project that, though never finished, would deepen his relationships with influential contemporaries. For the decade to come, Lear was busy with work commissioned by such natural history luminaries as Prideaux John Selby, William Jardine, Thomas C. Eyton, and John Gould.
Gould’s is the name perhaps most closely associated with Lear today, and Peck devotes an entire informative chapter to their collaboration. The two met at the London Zoo, where Gould held the positions of curator and preparator. When Lear found himself with 50 unsold sets of his magnificent monograph of the parrots, Gould bought them and sold them—more than 2,000 individual plates in all—at a profit. He also engaged Lear to help Elizabeth Gould, the elder man’s wife, in her work preparing paintings and lithographs, and to produce new plates of his own; among Lear’s contributions to the Gould enterprise were nearly 70 plates in The Birds of Europe (including the Snowy Owls on the dust jacket of Peck’s book) and ten in the Monograph of the Ramphastidae.
Gould did not always fully acknowledge the artists responsible for the plates he published. Peck explains that that lapse, even if “insensitive,” was not unusual by the standards of the day and should not be used to explain what appears to be the falling out between Gould and Lear in later life; instead, Gould’s treatment of Lear was simply in keeping with the way he dealt with the rest of his employees (and perhaps even with his wife), and an association begun in those terms could not be expected to flourish over long decades.
One relationship that did, though, was Lear’s connection to Edward Smith Stanley, later the Earl of Derby. At the time “the most generous and influential patron of the natural sciences in Great Britain,” Lord Stanley was one of the earliest purchasers of Lear’s monumental Parrots; his name on the subscriber list certainly encouraged others to acquire the work as well, spreading Lear’s fame and boosting his income. Over much of the 1830s, Lear spent weeks at a time at Knowsley Hall, where Stanley kept an enormous private zoo comprising several thousand animals, including more than 600 species of birds; Lear also had access to Knowsley’s estimable library and a collection of some 20,000 bird and mammal skins. A selection of the watercolors Lear produced at Knowsley were eventually issued as a set of 100 lithographs, with text by John Edward Gray; privately published, in a very small edition, the Gleanings of the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall can be yours today for about US $100,000.
At first just Lear’s patron, Stanley would become his friend as well, promoting both the younger man’s financial stability and his growth as an artist. Travel would be an important part of that growth, and Stanley first supported a plan to have Lear explore America with one of their common friends, John James Audubon. Audubon demurred, but soon thereafter Stanley and Robert Hornby subsidized the twenty-five-year-old Lear’s move from England to Italy. That move essentially coincided with the artist’s decision to turn from natural history to landscape painting, the genre that would remain his specialty for the rest of his life. Just how breathtakingly well Lear succeeded is obvious from the drawings, lithographs, and paintings reproduced here. Peck puts it admirably in his description of a watercolor study of a palm grove Lear produced in India in the mid-1870s: “One senses that these watercolors are as much about light and air and movement as they are about the structural forms.”
Unjustly, Lear’s charming “nonsense” verse, his limericks and fanciful rhymed novellas, are vastly better known today than almost any of his illustrations and other paintings. Peck offers a brief account of the genesis of some of those literary works, which Lear “prepared with exacting care,” and shows how Lear’s words and his pictures have influenced other authors of children’s books and whimsy, from Beatrix Potter to Edward Gorey. The list of illustrators who have created their own paintings to accompany re-issues of Lear’s books is a long one and distinguished, including at least one Caldecott medalist.
But “fine” artists, too, have found inspiration in Lear. Walton Ford—whom I first encountered in the Passenger Pigeon year of 2014—rates Lear “one of those very rare artists you can truly call a genius.” Ford’s own work is hermeneutically more complex than any of Lear’s natural history illustrations, combining references to literary and visual works in a painterly style that overlays a strict, almost archaizing formal historicism with surfaces that come close to the glossy harshness of surrealism. Peck provides four examples, all depicting parrots obviously inspired by Lear; one illustrates Audubon’s traumatic (and probably plagiarized) tale of the monkey and the macaw, a fact not mentioned in Peck’s text.
Some of the works of another gifted American artist and illustrator, James Prosek, stand firmly in Lear’s “nonsense” tradition: Prosek’s “Cockatool,” for example, at first glance the exquisite portrait of a real living bird, sprouts a variety of blades from its sulphury crest, and is described in the artist’s annotations as “efficient at most simple carpentry jobs.” The British political cartoonist Nick Garland, too, has found abundant inspiration in Lear’s verse and drawings, creating sly contrafacts with topical significance: Margaret Thatcher as Lear’s “impulsive old person of Stroud,” or Bill Clinton trying to teach a recalcitrant fish (identified in Garland’s cartoon as the Irish Republican Army) to walk on land.
Peck devotes a chapter to three currently active artists he styles “poetical topographers,” creators of landscapes “whose philosophy of painting and insightful landscape views suggest a continuation” of a painterly tradition exemplified by Lear. All three share with Lear an awareness of the value of the peripatetic life in “adding fresh ideas to both mind and portfolio,” but as appealing and interesting as their work is, the connection Peck draws to their nineteenth-century forebear seems rather tenuous, or at least so generalized—they all “share a sensibility that Lear would have appreciated”—as to be not particularly cogent.
As expected from one of America’s most notable small publishers, The Natural History of Edward Lear is beautifully designed, with flawlessly reproduced color illustrations, some never published before; most openings feature several images, some of them full-page. I was surprised and disappointed, though, to find a half line of incorrectly placed text in my review copy; towards the end of the volume, an untrimmed page, inelegantly folded into the book block, preserves the color bars, time of printing, and a brief Chinese text, physically spoiling what is otherwise a very handsome, and not especially inexpensive, book.
Printing flaws aside, this is also an essential book for readers interested in birds and art and bird art. With his usual erudition and in his usual crystal-clear prose, Robert McCracken Peck introduces the reader to a leading, if still little-known, light in the history of natural history art, a man who was painter, poet, travel writer, and more—and excelled in all that he did. Yes, there was only one Edward Lear. Indeed, as the reader of this fine book will agree, there could only ever have been one Edward Lear.
Wright, R. 2017. Limericks, Landscapes, and Lorikeets—by Lear [a review of The Natural History of Edward Lear, by Robert McCracken Peck]. Birding 49: 69-70.