Edward Lear was born in 1812, the twentieth child of a London stockbroker. When Lear was four his father’s business collapsed and the family was pitched into poverty. As a young child he developed epilepsy, a condition regarded with much superstition in those days, and as a result, he always saw himself as somewhat of an outsider.
Neglected by his mother, Lear was primarily raised by his devoted sister, Ann, who did much to compensate for the unhappiness of his early years. She taught him to read and write, to play the piano and, most significantly, to draw and paint. As a young man, he began to earn his living as an artist, first selling small drawings and later working as a draughtsman for the Zoological Society.
In 1832 Lear was engaged by Lord Stanley, the president of the Zoological Society, to make drawings of the rare birds and animals in the menagerie at his home, Knowsley Hall. Lear lived on the Knowsley estate for five years, and many of his beautiful drawings from this period are still in the library there. Lear would entertain Lord Stanley’s children with his drawings and with limericks and nonsense rhymes that he made up for them – he noted that they responded with ‘uproarious delight and welcome at the appearance of every new absurdity.’
By the mid 1830s, Lear decided to become a landscape painter and departed for Rome. He spent much of the rest of his life travelling throughout Europe, painting and writing a number of travel guides. His reputation as a painter grew and his works began to sell for considerable sums. In 1846 he was appointed drawing master to Queen Victoria, who had admired his illustrations in one of his travel books. But it was his nonsense verse – and the publication in 1867 of his most famous poem, The Owl and the Pussycat – that made him a household name. ‘Nonsense is the breath of my nostrils,’ he wrote. He saw it as a perfect medium to comment on the world around him – or, as he put it, ‘this ludicrously whirligig life which one suffers from first and laughs at afterwards.’
Not long before Lear died in 1888, his friend Emily Tennyson wrote to him, ‘However solitary your life has, for many years been, you must not forget that to you is given the most precious gift of peopling the lives of many, not only of this generation but of generations to come, with good and beautiful things and thoughts.’