Edward Lear: Artist, Explorer and Poet

A small display of four watercolours

28 April - 30 September 2012

This exhibition is now closed

Antilebanon and Mount Hermon, painted about 1858 by Edward Lear (1812-1888). Pen, ink, watercolour and gouache on paper. WAG 8162. Cattaro, Yugoslavia, painted in 1866 by Edward Lear (1812-1888). Watercolour and gouache, pen and ink on paper. WAG 8151. Mentone, Pont St. Louis, painted in 1864 by Edward Lear (1812-1888). Watercolour and gouache, pen and ink on paper. WAG 8149. Quarries of Syracuse, painted in 1847 by Edward Lear (1812-1888). Ink and watercolour on paper. WAG 982. Edward Lear, drawn in 1857 by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). Crayon and chalk on paper. WAG 1251.    

'Edward Lear: Artist, Explorer and Poet' reveals five of Lear’s most stunning watercolours from his years spent travelling from 1837 to his death in 1888. This display marks the bicentenary of Lear's birth..

Edward Lear had a vast and varied career as an artist spanning six decades. Today he is best remembered for his nonsense poetry and caricatures, which demonstrate his offbeat humour and personality.

When Lear was 25 he moved to Italy. He spent the rest of his life based in Europe but travelled worldwide to remote and beautiful places. He created numerous sketches and works of the places he visited that many of his patrons and friends in England would never see.

To share his experiences with others Lear documented and intricately described nearly every day of the 50 years he spent travelling. He stated that he wanted to 'topographise the journeyings’ of his life, recording his movements in sketches, diary entries, letters and journals, some of which he later published.

Lear annotated his sketches with notes and descriptions, giving the works a highly personal quality. He deliberately misspelt words and played with repetition and senseless phrases, creating his own unique language.

 Edward Lear the explorer

Portrait of Edward Lear

At the age of only 25, Lear was forced to give up his early career drawing intricate studies of ornithological species due to failing eyesight. Lear's health problems, including epilepsy and asthma, would prove to shape his entire life.

In a bid to improve his physical well-being he moved to Rome in 1837 and went on to base himself in southern Europe. Lear spent the next 50 years exploring the world, creating and selling his watercolours, drawings, paintings and journals wherever he went.

He travelled as far as Palestine, Egypt and India, studying each location's unique topography and characteristics before creating his sketches. These landscapes were well received in Britain and Lear managed to live on commissions and private patronage. He often survived on very little money and slept in tents during his travels.

His poor health meant he was often exhausted and he suffered from bouts of depression, but Lear did not let this hold him back. He constantly challenged himself, spurred on by a passionate interest in discovery and continuously sought out new and exciting scenery. He especially favoured working from high vistas, looking across open landscapes, and would often hike for hours in blistering heat to reach them.

Lear and William Holman Hunt

Lear's sketches and watercolours were popular during his life but he wanted very passionately to become more skilled in translating these into oil paintings. Embarrassed by his lack of formal artistic training, he briefly joined the Royal Academy in 1850, sitting the exams with men 15 years his junior.

By 1852 Lear had decided that he needed special tuition and turned to the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt for advice. Hunt explained to Lear that it was extremely difficult to paint detailed oil paintings from sketches and drawings. Instead he suggested that Lear could develop his travel sketches into more detailed scenes using the British countryside. Hunt took Lear to Fairlight on the Sussex coast to paint directly from nature. In return Lear taught Hunt to speak Italian.

Hunt drew a portrait of Lear in 1857 as part of a series depicting his artist friends. Including Lear in this series was a huge compliment from one of Britain's most renowned Pre-Raphaelite painters. Lear had huge respect for the artist, who he affectionately referred to as 'Pa', although Hunt was his junior.

Hunt presented the portrait to the Walker Art Gallery in 1907. Hunt said that the gift was to mark his gratitude to the city of Liverpool for its academy's support of his career.

Edward Lear the poet

Book of nonsense illustration

This illustration from 'The Book of Nonsense' is not in the Edward Lear display at the Walker or in its collections. Image from Wikimedia.

As a teenager, Lear developed a great skill drawing zoological subjects, such as birds, monkeys, squirrels and turtles. On the strength of this he was invited by Lord Stanley, the 13th Earl of Derby to Knowsley Hall, Merseyside, to draw in detail the animals in his much loved menagerie.

Whilst residing there, Lear sought to amuse Lord Stanley's grandchildren and created caricatures and cartoons accompanied by playful and often nonsensical tales. Initially Lear was sent to eat with the servants of the house but he charmed and befriended the family and began what would become a life long friendship with the Earl.

His humorous illustrations and musings would eventually be published as 'The Book of Nonsense' in 1846.

 Limerick by Edward Lear

There was an Old Person whose habits
Induced him to feed upon Rabbits;
When he'd eaten eighteen, he turned perfectly green,
Upon which he relinquished those habits.

There was an Old Derry down Derry,
who loved to see little folks merry;
So he made them a Book,
and with laughter they shook
At the fun of that Derry down Derry.

Originally published 1846