Archaeology Odyssey 5:3, May/June 2002

Past Perfect: The Ridiculous and the Sublime

A master of light verse and painted landscapes, Edward Lear was also a man of the world

Archaeology Odyssey

The English landscape artist and doggerel poet Edward Lear hardly cut a dashing figure. He was large and ungainly—“as uncombative as a tender girl,” according to fellow painter William Holman Hunt—and plagued by asthma, epilepsy and depression. But he also possessed great wit and a childlike love of the absurd. Lear was born in 1812 near London, the 20th child in a family of 21 siblings. At the age of 19, he published a highly regarded volume of drawings, Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots, which brought him to the attention of Lord Stanley, later the Earl of Derby. Stanley invited Lear to his home near Liverpool to draw the birds and animals in his private menagerie. The whimsical young artist quickly became a family favorite, charming the Stanley children with jokes, puns and limericks—which were later published under the pseudonym Derry Down Derry in the wildly popular Book of Nonsense (1846). In 1837 Lear traveled to Italy, where he spent the better part of a decade honing his skills as a landscape painter. During the rest of his life, he traveled far and wide, sketching and painting the wonders of Corfu, Greece, Turkey, the Levant, India and Egypt. In 1888, at the age of 76, the self-proclaimed “Laureate of Nonsense” died in San Remo, Italy.

How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!

Who has written such volumes of stuff!

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