Many of us remember Edward Lear fondly as a nonsense poet and limerick writer, particularly as the author of The Owl and the Pussycat.

What most people don’t know is that Lear was also an accomplished artist. He began drawing commercially at just sixteen and soon began to specialise in ornithological drawing. He worked for the Zoological Society in London and at Knowsley Hall for the Earl of Derby – a wealthy private collector of natural history and live exotic animals.

Between 1830 and 1832, Lear’s first published work appeared. Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots was well received and he was even compared with the great bird artist John James Audubon. Lear was one of the earliest and best scientific artists to exploit a new printing technique called lithography in which an artist could draw directly onto the printing stone, instead of having an engraver transfer the drawing to a metal plate.

The young Lear invested all his efforts into the book – he made the original sketches, prepared the lithographic stones and oversaw the hand-colouring of each print. Lear’s Parrots was the first British publication on a single family of birds – an idea later capitalised on by John Gould. Parrots was not a financial success, however, and the 19-year-old Lear was forced to sell his stones and remaining stock to Gould.

Lear worked as draughtsman for John Gould on The Birds of the Himalayan Mountains (1831), Monograph of the Ramphastidae [Toucans] (1834) and The Birds of Europe (1837). Gould was a shrewd businessman, and was able to capitalise on Lear’s talents as an artist and lithographer, engaging him not only to produce plates for Gould’s publications, but also to train Gould’s wife, Elizabeth, in the lithographic technique.

Psittacus augustus by Edward Lear. Published in Genera of Birds by Robert Gray (1849)
Psittacus augustus by Edward Lear. Published in Genera of Birds by Robert Gray (1849) Image: Australian Museum
© Australian Museum

Gould used several artists as well as himself and Elizabeth to create his beautiful bird plates, but they were almost never credited. He sometimes went so far as to remove artists’ names from the stones before they were printed. Lear and Gould did not get on. Lear later said that Gould was a harsh man, and it is possible that he was bitter at Gould’s cavalier treatment of his talent.

Edward Lear contributed to several illustrated works of natural history throughout the 1830s, including Tortoises, terrapins, and turtles drawn from life by James Sowerby, himself a distinguished natural history artist. Lear prepared the plates from Sowerby’s originals – the combined skill of both men resulted in some of the most beautiful coloured plates on the subject.

Lear also produced some little-known but spectacular watercolours of Australian mammals, including the Tasmanian Devil, Thylacine, possums, quolls and kangaroos. How he was able to do so without ever travelling to Australia is a story waiting to be told.

As his eyesight deteriorated, Lear was no longer able to achieve the accuracy required for natural history illustration. He travelled extensively through southern Europe, publishing several works of illustrated scenery depicting his travels in Italy as well as his famous nonsense illustrations and verse. The Owl and the Pussycat was published in 1867. Lear died in 1888 from heart disease at his villa in San Remo.

The Australian Museum Research Library holds several items in the Rare Book collection to which Lear contributed, including Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall (1846), Gould's Monograph of the Ramphastidae (2nd ed. 1854), Illustrations of British Ornithology (1834), Sowerby’s Tortoises, Terrapins and Turtles (1872) and The Naturalist’s Library edited by Sir William Jardine (1833-1841). The Library also holds a lavish facsimile copy of Lear’s Parrots published in 2009.