Best known for his lyrical masterpiece The Owl & The Pussycat, Edward Lear was one of the 19th century's most amusing creative dabblers. Artist, illustrator, poet, musician and author, Lear flitted between creative professions throughout his lifetime, but his true forte was a playful mastery of the English language. Introducing the art of the nonsense poem into British literature, his work would go on to influence the weirdest of wordsmiths, from Lewis Carroll and Dr Seuss to Stanley Unwin and Ogden Nash.
Edward Lear was born in 1812, the penultimate child in a litter of 21 children. His eldest sister Ann, two decades older than the young Edward, acted as his guardian from early in his childhood and remained his close companion for the rest of her life. The typical 'sickly' Victorian child, Edward's life would be plagued by illness, including asthma, bronchitis and bad eyesight. But it was his epilepsy that caused Edward the most suffering, leading to his reclusive temperament and recurrent bouts of depression - an affliction he named 'The Morbids'.
Yet Edward's work was characterised by humour and a sparkling imagination. Known to use an absurd 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"), it was widely rumoured that Edward Lear was the pen name of his patron, the Earl of Derby, and Lear often had to convince those he met that he was in fact who he said he was.
He played piano, accordion, flute, and small guitar, and was known for his musical accompaniments to the poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. His first literary collection, The Book of Nonsense (1846) popularised the limerick and established Lear as a writer of the more unusual variety. Among his fantastic selection of short stories, poems and songs, The Jumblies is a particular a riveting tale involving creatures who sail to sea in a sieve. On their travels they visit such wonders as the Torrible Zone, the hills of the Chankly Bore, and decidedly acquire 'no end of Stilton Cheese', 'a hive of silvery Bees' and 'forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree'.
"And all night long they sailed away;
And when the sun went down,
They whistled and warbled a moony song
To the echoing sound of a coppery gong,
In the shade of the mountains brown.
‘O Timballo! How happy we are,
When we live in a sieve and a crockery-jar,
And all night long in the moonlight pale,
We sail away with a pea-green sail,
In the shade of the mountains brown!’
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue
And they went to sea in a Sieve."
By the age of 16, Lear was already drawing to earn money. He was employed by the London Zoological Society as an ornithological draughtsman and had a unique talent for drawing from live birds rather than skins. This penchant for the natural world clearly influenced his literature, with a knack for inventing ridiculous landscapes and anthropomorphising all kind of creatures and objects. The result is a surreal Learean world of Scroobious Pips, Quangle Wangles, and Great Gromboolian Plains.
This fanciful re-sculpting of the physical world is brilliantly exemplified in in Lear's Nonsense Botany. Published as a series between 1871 - 1877, the sketches and entertaining captions read as a taxonomy of incongruous plant-creatures.
Lear spent much of his life travelling and painted his excursions to Italy extensively. He never married but kept close companionship with his Albanian chef, Giorgis and a cat named Foss. In the 1870s he settled in San Remo, Italy and died at home in 1888.
Edward Lear is commemorated each year on his birthday, 12th May, known across the world as Owl & The Pussycat Day. If we can learn anything from Lear's work, it is that art does not have to be serious to be of worth. With enough wit, vision, and vernacular inventiveness, fanciful new worlds can be born that will stir the public's imagination for generations.