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Natural history: The wilder side of Edward Lear


As the poet and artist's bicentenary approaches, Robert McCracken Peck celebrates his natural-history legacy.

The Natural History of Edward Lear

Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Until 18 August 2012

In 1988, the United Kingdom issued a set of four postage stamps to commemorate the centennial of the death of the beloved artist, poet and travel writer Edward Lear (1812–88). The stamps featured some of Lear's whimsical ink drawings, including a self-caricature of the bearded artist flying on improbably minuscule wings, and the two boat-bound protagonists of his best-known poem, The Owl and the Pussycat.

The affable Lear would have been pleased — and probably astonished — by his country's philatelic attention, but almost certainly disappointed by the choice of images. He considered his illustrated nonsense verse, which ultimately earned him a memorial stone in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner, a sideline to his more serious focus: natural-history and landscape painting. Lear so feared that his poetic flights of fancy would undermine his scientific reputation that he hid them behind the pseudonym Derry Down Derry until 1861, long after his nonsense corpus had won a devoted following around the world.

Lithograph of the scarlet macaw (Ara macao) from Lear's parrot monograph, begun when he was 18. Credit: HOUGHTON LIB./HARVARD UNIV./TYP 805L.32 (A)

Today, Lear's contributions to science have been mostly forgotten, but early in his life he was a prolific painter of natural-history subjects, earning near-universal praise for his accuracy, originality and style. Lear's greatest scientific contribution was his magnificent Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots (1830–32) — the first monograph to focus on a single avian family — which he began to publish in small batches of individual lithographs when he was just 18 years old. Admired by aviculturists and ornithologists alike, the book's depictions of “species hitherto unfigured” helped to make Lear the artist of choice for many of Britain's leading ornithological publishers in the 1830s and 1840s.

In that golden age of colour-plate books, Lear created some of the most spectacular natural-history illustrations ever published. The original watercolours for these and his other scientific paintings, some of which are on show at the Houghton Library at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have a timeless vitality. Lear met and worked with most of the leading naturalists of his day. He may even have helped John Gould, the chief taxidermist at London Zoo, and his wife Elizabeth — herself a natural-history artist — to create some of the illustrations for Charles Darwin's report on the birds seen during the voyage of HMS Beagle.

Yet Lear's later glory masked tough beginnings and ongoing difficulties. The 20th of 21 children, he was born to a prosperous middle-class family in Holloway, now part of north London. But a financial reversal forced the family to disperse when Lear was four years old. He was brought up by his devoted older sister Ann, who gave him lessons that included a rudimentary training in art. As a young boy, Lear earned money “colouring prints, screens, fans” and “making morbid disease drawings for hospitals and certain doctors of physic”, as he noted in the preface to Nonsense Songs and Stories (1871).

Lear in his late 20s when, despite deteriorating eyesight, his artistic reputation was thriving. Credit: TOPHAM PICTUREPOINT/TOPFOTO.CO.UK

As a counterweight to this mundane work and to ease his anxiety over the asthma, epilepsy and depression that were to trouble him throughout his life, the youthful Lear created sketchbooks filled with drawings of imaginary birds and animals set in lush, tropical landscapes. A few real-life studies in these hint at the enormous talent he would soon reveal to the scientific world.

Lear's first published illustrations were two vignettes, of lemurs and macaws, in Edward Turner Bennett's The Gardens and Menagerie of the Zoological Society Delineated (1830–31). Lear was a natural choice: he had been sketching at London Zoo since it had opened to the public, in 1828.

In June 1830, Lear formally applied for, and received, permission from the Zoological Society's council to draw all the parrots in the society's collection. Over the next two years, he created 42 lithographs for his own folio monograph. Accomplished without institutional, governmental or commercial support, it was an extraordinary achievement, setting new standards for artistic and scientific quality. When renowned ornithologist William Swainson saw the lithograph of a scarlet macaw (Ara macao), he wrote to Lear that he considered it equal in “grace of design, perspective, or anatomical accuracy” to anything by the iconic illustrator John James Audubon; and British naturalist Prideaux John Selby thought the plates “infinitely superior to Audubon's in softness and the drawings as good”.

The monograph earned Lear election to the Linnean Society of London, but not the financial security that he hoped for. John Gould, who then was just launching his own career as a publisher of ornithological books, saw an opportunity in Lear's financial distress. He bought unsold copies of the monograph and hired Lear to produce illustrations for several of his own large-format publications. Over the next few years, Lear created 68 powerful plates for Gould's five-volume masterwork, The Birds of Europe (1832–37), and ten illustrations for Gould's equally beautiful two-volume monograph on toucans (1833–35).

An early admirer was Edward Smith Stanley, later the 13th Earl of Derby and Lear's most important patron. The earl invited Lear to paint some of the captive birds and mammals living at Knowsley Hall, his sprawling estate near Liverpool. The enormous menagerie contained several thousand animals, including 619 species of birds, along with a natural-history library and some 20,000 mounted and preserved birds and mammals. Lear accepted, and over the next seven years produced more than 100 paintings of the most prized specimens. Seventeen were reproduced in a privately printed book, Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall (1846), which documented a number of species for the first time.

The exquisite accuracy of Lear's natural-history paintings was achieved partly by working from living subjects whenever possible. “I am never pleased with a drawing unless I make it from life,” he wrote in 1831. His preparatory studies — stunning watercolours, often heavily annotated regarding colour and form — marvellously mix detail with spontaneity.

Lear's 'hyacinth macaw' (top) turned out to be an unknown species, now called Lear's macaw (Anodorhyncus leari); bottom, a vitoe (Nyctipithecus felinus) from the collection of the 13th Earl of Derby. Credit: Houghton Lib./Harvard Univ./MS Typ 55.9 (22); Houghton Lib./Harvard Univ./MS Typ 55.12 (Fol. 13)

That scrupulous accuracy could not hide Lear's irrepressible bent for the nonsensical. When not painting or socializing with the earl's guests, he would entertain the children at the hall with a steady flow of whimsy — a way of giving pleasure while cutting across barriers of age and social class. Many of Lear's famous limericks emerged from these sessions. Many of his nonsense drawings, alphabets and verses drew on his knowledge of natural history: for example, his whimsical sketches of pseudo-plants, such as Manypeeplia upsidownia, captured the look and sound of real species, both spoofing and celebrating the seriousness of his scientific subjects.

Despite his rapid success, Lear soon tired of scientific illustration. He blamed his loss of interest on failing eyesight, although the detail in some of his later work belies that claim. “My eyes are so sadly worse, that no bird under an ostrich shall I soon be able to see to do,” he wrote at just 24, in the hope of forestalling further illustrative assignments from the demanding Gould.

Lear had long held an interest in landscape painting, and in 1837 Lord Derby agreed to underwrite a two-year study trip to Italy. Lear spent the rest of his life abroad, returning to England only periodically. In 1846, he spent a brief stint as drawing instructor to the young Queen Victoria.

Lear remained a keen observer of nature wherever he was — Italy, Greece, Albania, Egypt, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India, among other destinations — but he never returned to the study of birds and animals, except through his nonsense.

Happily, through one of his early drawings, Lear made an inadvertent scientific discovery of his own. The illustration of the hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) in his parrot monograph was later found to be of a different, previously undescribed species. The ornithologist Charles Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon's nephew, named it Anodorhynchus leari, or Lear's macaw, in 1856. This endangered species, which persists in northeastern Brazil, is a living legacy that Lear would undoubtedly have appreciated far more than the nonsense — or the postage stamps.

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Correspondence to Robert McCracken Peck.

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Peck, R. Natural history: The wilder side of Edward Lear. Nature 485, 36–37 (2012).

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