Untold lives blog

29 January 2016

Edward Lear Breaks My Heart

Today is the anniversary of Edward Lear's death in 1888. Everything about Lear delights and surprises. From his limericks and stories to his ornithological watercolours and topographical landscape paintings, his work gently tugs at the very souls of children and adults alike.

I first came across Lear as the author of The Owl and the Pussycat and as a small child I had a porridge spoon which I named 'The Runcible Spoon'.


'The Owl and the Pussy-Cat', in A Book of Nonsense . . . with all the original pictures and verses, by Edward Lear. Published by George Routledge & Sons, London, 1910. British Library 12812.bb.26 13. Untitled

As an adult I remember being surprised to see a pen and ink landscape drawing by Lear as I'd had no idea that he was a topographical artist. This led me to delight in further watercolours, drawings and vast oil paintings. Some of the drawings are so immediate you can almost feel Lear sketching and making notes on the colours in the view before him.


Howatke by Edward Lear, 1867. Watercolour, graphite, pen and brown ink. Yale Centre for British Art, Gift of Donald C. Gallup. B1997.7.99.

Others views are so grand that they could rival the apocalyptical paintings by John Martin


Kangchenjunga from Darjeeling by Edward Lear, 1879. Oil on canvas. Yale Centre for British Art, Gift of Michael D. Coe, B2009.18.

The British Library owns a number of Lear's manuscripts including that for The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipplepopple, Add MS 47462.

In the story Lear states "There was a family of two old guinea pigs and seven young guinea pigs . . . the guinea pigs todddled about the gardens, and ate lettuce and Cheshire cheese". When the seven young guinea pigs were sent away to see the world, the "old guinea pigs said, 'Have a care that you eat your lettuces, should you find any, not greedily, but calmly". I love Lear's use of language here as he portrays animals with such sensitivity and humour.

I’m particularly obsessed with the manuscript sketch of the guinea pigs and it’s wonderful to be able to compare the ink drawing with the published illustration. The manuscript shows only the seven little guinea pigs, some of whom are running so fast their feet fail to touch the ground. The published illustration shows the older guinea pigs as well.


‘The History of the Seven Families’ from A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear, this edition published by George Routledge & Sons: London, 1910. British Library 12812.bb.26., 180. Untitled


Manuscript illustration for 'The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipplepopple' by Edward Lear, 1871, pen and black ink, British Library Add MS 47462. f. 37. Untitled

Not only do I love Lear, I also adore his pet cat, Foss who died just three months before him. Lear loved Foss so much that when the cat died he had a grave made for him in his garden.  Foss first arrived as a tiny kitten in Lear's household in 1873. He was evidently a lively cat who was caught shredding Lear's letters and stealing slices of toast from visitors.


'Foss Couchant' from 'The Heraldic Blazons of Foss'. Illustration taken from Nonsense Songs & Stories by Edward Lear. Published by Frederick Warne & Co, London and New York, 1898. Author's own copy. Untitled

I also own a cat called Foss, named in honour of Edward Lear's pet. Like his namesake, the 21st century Foss also shreds post and newspapers. While he doesn't care for toast he has been known to attack ham sandwiches.


Foss, 2015. Photograph author's own.

 Alexandra Ault, Curator, Manuscripts and Archives 1601-1850, British Library.



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