Renowned for humourous poetry, prose and limericks, the British artist, illustrator, author, and poet Edward Lear was born 12 May 1812 in the village of Holloway, and was raised by his eldest sister, 21 years his senior. Due to the family’s failing financial fortune, at age four he and his sister had to leave the family home and set up house together. Ann doted on Edward and continued to mother him until her death, when he was almost 50 years of age. Lear suffered from health problems. From the age of six he suffered frequent grand mal epileptic seizures, and bronchitis, asthma, and in later life, partial blindness. Lear experienced his first seizure at a fair near Highgate with his father this event scared and embarrassed him. Lear felt lifelong guilt and shame for his epileptic condition. His adult diaries indicate that he always sensed the onset of a seizure in time to remove himself from public view. How Lear was able to anticipate them is not known, but many people with epilepsy report a ringing in their ears (tinnitus) or an aura before the onset of a seizure. In Lear’s time epilepsy was believed to be associated with demonic possession, which contributed to his feelings of guilt and loneliness. When Lear was about seven he began to show signs of depression, possibly due to the constant instability of his childhood. He suffered from periods of severe depression which he referred to as “the Morbids.
Lear was already drawing by the time he was aged 16 and soon developed into a serious “ornithological draughtsman” employed by the Zoological Society and then from 1832 to 1836 by the Earl of Derby, who kept a private menagerie at his estate Knowsley Hall. Lear’s first publication, published when he was 19 years old, was Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots in 1830.His paintings were well received and he was compared favourably with the naturalist John James Audubon.He was also widely travelled and visited Greece and Egypt during 1848–49, and toured India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) during 1873–75. While travelling he produced large quantities of coloured wash drawings in a distinctive style, which he converted later in his studio into oil and watercolour paintings, as well as prints for his books.His landscape style often shows views with strong sunlight, with intense contrasts of colour. Throughout his life he continued to paint seriously. He had a lifelong ambition to illustrate Tennyson’s poems; near the end of his life a volume with a small number of illustrations was published
In 1846 Lear published A Book of Nonsense, a volume of limericks that went through three editions and helped popularize the form. In 1865 The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipple-Popple was published, and in 1867 his most famous piece of nonsense, The Owl and the Pussycat, which he wrote for the children of his patron Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby. Many other works followed. Lear’s nonsense books were quite popular during his lifetime, but a rumor developed that “Edward Lear” was merely a pseudonym, and the books’ true author was the man to whom Lear had dedicated the works, his patron the Earl of Derby. Promoters of this rumour offered as evidence the facts that both men were named Edward, and that “Lear” is an anagram of “Earl.” Lear travelled widely throughout his life and eventually settled in Sanremo, on his beloved Mediterranean coast, in the 1870s, at a villa he named “Villa Tennyson.” The closest he came to marriage was two proposals, both to the same woman 46 years his junior, which were not accepted. For companions he relied instead on a circle of friends and correspondents, and especially, in later life, on his Albanian Souliote chef, Giorgis, a faithful friend and, as Lear complained, a thoroughly unsatisfactory chef. Another trusted companion in Sanremo was his cat, Foss, who died in 1886 and was buried with some ceremony in a garden at Villa Tennyson.
Lear’s most fervent and painful friendship involved Franklin Lushington. He met the young barrister in Malta in 1849 and then toured southern Greece with him. Lear developed an undoubtedly homosexual passion for him that Lushington did not reciprocate. Although they remained friends for almost forty years, until Lear’s death, the disparity of their feelings for one another constantly tormented Lear. Indeed, none of Lear’s attempts at male companionship were successful; the very intensity of Lear’s affections seemingly doomed the relationships. The closest he came to marriage with a woman was two proposals, both to the same person 46 years his junior, which were not accepted. For companions he relied instead on friends and correspondents, and especially, during later life, on his Albanian Souliote chef, Giorgis, a faithful friend and, as Lear complained, a thoroughly unsatisfactory chef. Another trusted companion in Sanremo was his cat, Foss, who died in 1886 and was buried with some ceremony in a garden at Villa Tennyson. Lear eventually settled in San Remo, on his beloved Mediterranean coast, in the 1870s, at a villa he named “Villa Tennyson.” Lear was known to introduce himself with a long pseudonym: “Mr Abebika kratoponoko Prizzikalo Kattefello Ablegorabalus Ableborinto phashyph” or “Chakonoton the Cozovex Dossi Fossi Sini Tomentilla Coronilla Polentilla Battledore & Shuttlecock Derry down Derry Dumps” which he based on Aldiborontiphoskyphorniostikos.
Sadly After a long decline in his health, Lear died at his villa on 29 January 1888, of heart disease. Lear’s funeral was said to be a sad, lonely affair by the wife of Dr. Hassall, Lear’s physician, with none of Lear’s many lifelong friends being able to attend. Lear is buried in the Cemetery Foce in San Remo. The centenary of his death was marked in Britain with a set of Royal Mail stamps in 1988 and an exhibition at the Royal Academy. Lear’s birthplace area is now marked with a plaque at Bowman’s Mews, Islington, in London.