Sunday, November 4, 2007
He was born in High gate, a suburb of London, the 20th child of his parents and was raised by his eldest sister, Ann, twenty-one years his senior. At the age of fifteen, he and his sister had to leave the family home and set up house together. He started work as a serious illustrator and his first publication, at the age of 19, was Illustrations of the Family of Psittacoses, or Parrots in 1830. His paintings were well received and he was favorably compared with Audubon. Throughout his life he continued to paint seriously. He had a lifelong ambition to illustrate Tennyson's poems; near the end of his life a volume with a small number of illustrations was published, but his vision for the work was never realized. Lear briefly gave drawing lessons to Queen Victoria, leading to some awkward incidents when he failed to observe proper court protocol.
He did not keep good health. From the age of six until the time of his death he suffered frequent grand mall epileptic seizures, as well as bronchitis, asthma, and in later life, partial blindness. Lear experienced his first epileptic fit while sitting in a tree. Lear felt lifelong guilt and shame for his epileptic condition. His adult diaries indicate that he always sensed the onset of a fit in time to remove himself from public view. How Lear was able to anticipate his fits is not known, but many people with epilepsy report a ringing in their ears or an "aura" before the onset of a fit.
In 1846 Lear published A Book of Nonsense, a volume of limericks which went through three editions and helped popularize the form. In 1865 The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipple-Popple was published, and in 1867 his most famous piece of nonsense, The Owl and the Pussycat, which he wrote for the children of his patron Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby. Many other works followed.
Lear's nonsense books were quite popular during his lifetime, but a rumor circulated that "Edward Lear" was merely a pseudonym, and the books' true author was the man to whom Lear had dedicated the works: his patron the Earl of Derby. Adherents of this rumor offered as evidence the facts that both men were named Edward, and that "Lear" is an anagram of "Earl".