An exhibition of sketches by the English author reveals his artistic skills and life as ‘something of a sad clown’

His nonsense verse and limericks have delighted generations of readers, with The Owl and the Pussycat among English literature’s best-loved poems, but Edward Lear most wanted recognition as an oil painter of grand subjects. Now many of the landscape sketches he created on his extensive travels worldwide are to be shown for the first time.

They make up an extraordinary visual diary of a nomadic, shy man who led an isolated life partly to conceal his epilepsy – a condition that carried great social stigma in his day. He spent more than 50 years touring Europe, the Middle East, India and beyond, creating thousands of sketches.

With extraordinary speed, Lear captured moments in time – jotting down the place, date and exact hour of the day on those images. Visiting the temple of Amada, the ancient Egyptian temple in Nubia, in 1867, he drew it five times within 40 minutes, adding a time stamp to each: 6.50am, 7.10, 7.20, 7.25, 7.30.

The series is among more than 60 sketches by Lear that the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham will feature in what it describes as the first exhibition dedicated solely to his landscape sketches. Entitled Edward Lear: Moment to Moment, the show will open in September.

More than half of the sketches have not been seen before. Some have been matched with observations Lear made in previously unpublished diaries that he kept over several decades.

The exhibition is co-curated by Matthew Bevis, professor in English literature at the University of Oxford, and Ikon director Jonathan Watkins.

Bevis told the Observer that Lear would be “shocked” to learn that his pictorial diarising would be exhibited, as these sketches were trials for future works or aide-memoires for his travels.

Watkins likened them to “little slices of time”: “There’ll be a sequence of maybe five or six: 5.20pm, 5.30pm, 6pm. He could be just watching the light changing, or drifting down a river. You’ve got this idea of time passing and a kind of frenetic desire to somehow capture it.”

He added: “He’s often writing on the sketches, making notes to himself. He’ll go back to his hotel room or wherever he’s staying and colour it in. Sometimes he hears a song and he writes down the musical notation. They’re very revealing in a way that the more finished works aren’t.”

Watkins singled out particularly “evocative” images of Lake Como and Malta as well as views of India, which he described as “spectacular”.

Many of these sketches reflect the “nonsensical side” of Lear that he would not have included in his finished pictures, with details such as comical figures, nonsense words and silly notes to himself.

Bevis said: “On the sketch he would write various nonsense words. For ‘rocks’ it would be ‘rox’; for a ‘ravine’, more comically, he would write ‘raven’. He’s a verbal artist of the highest order. Nonsense words that start to punctuate the sketches actually appear in a much more sustained way in the year he published his Book of Nonsense – 1846. So there’s a kind of surreptitious private joke going on.

Some sketches bear scribblings to himself: “A high wind & so cold I must go back for a coat.” Others have notes such as “semi genteel Tree”, apparently relating to his nonsense botanies, and in an otherwise serious landscape he placed a cartoon-like stick man.

In 1858, after a six-day camel trek, Lear arrived at Petra and was “more astonished than I had ever been by any spectacle” – only to be driven out by local tribesmen for trespassing on their land. He sketched the amphitheatre in half an hour before making his escape.

The exhibition draws on private and public collections in the UK and the US, including vast holdings in the Houghton Library, Harvard, that few have examined.

Bevis said that Lear’s talent as an artist has been overshadowed by his fame as a poet, and that while “he had dreams of becoming an oil painter of grand subjects”, he dismissed his own watercolours as less worthy: “But it wouldn’t be the first time that Lear made mistakes. He sold the rights to his publisher of the nonsense verse, which has never been out of print, for £125 in the 1860s.”

He described Lear as “something of a sad clown” who endured terrible challenges and contradictions: “He was in debt when he died. Without any training, he produced what’s now become one of the most highly regarded books of natural history illustrations of birds ever done – David Attenborough called him ‘the finest bird artist there ever was’ – and he was actually appointed to be drawing master to Queen Victoria. So there’s this strange mix of a self-taught genius and hard-up circumstances.

Edward Lear's lines of flight by Matthew Bevis - The Edward Lear Society

“He was born with chronic asthma. He was epileptic. He kept this a secret. He had a long history of depression. He had series of unrequited relationships with young men. So he was courting the upper echelons of society while feeling in many ways unworthy.”

Bevis added that the value of his paintings has exceeded anything Lear could have imagined: “He was always hard up and would probably have offered a wry smile if he’d known that one of his works would fetch close to $1m nearly 150 years later.

“But he’s a great artist. You wouldn’t have to know anything about his nonsense writings to find these sketches pretty astonishing.”


Source:, Dalya Alberge