Edward Lear was a topographical watercolourist, one of the best watercolour painters of the nineteenth century; he was also a landscape painter in oils, an illustrator, author and traveller. Lear was the youngest of twenty-one children, his father a stockbroker who lived in Holloway. In 1831 he worked as a draughtsman at the Zoological Gardens, and in 1832 published the Family of the Psittacidae, one of the earliest collections of coloured ornithological drawings made in England. From 1832-6 he worked at Knowsley for the thirteenth Earl of Derby, and for him illustrated this work. There too, he met many of his aristocratic friends, and in 1846 he began giving drawing lessons to Queen Victoria.
After 1837 Lear never again permanently lived in England: from 1837-41 he spent his winters in Rome. He worked throughout Italy, and later travelled to Corsica, Malta, Greece, Turkey, the Ionian Isles, Egypt, Jerusalem, Corfu, Syria. From 1864-70 Lear spent his winters in Nice, Malta, Egypt and Cannes; to India and Ceylon in 1873-5 for Lord Northbrook; and finally settled at San Remo, where he died.
He exhibited from 1836 at the Society of British Artists, Suffolk Street, at the Royal Academy from 1850-73, and also at the British Institution, Grosvenor Gallery, and elsewhere. His output of work was enormous: his ‘topographies’ were always done in pencil on site, and were often scribbled over with colour notes and dated. They were then inked in sepia and brush-washed with colour in the winter evenings. His oil paintings were mainly done 1840-53. Lear carried on through the Victorian period the tradition of watercolour drawings.
In a comparison between the style of Lear and great painter and watercolourist J M W Turner, M. Hardie comments, Turner alone had the same zest for life, the same infinite capacity for work, but Turner, though he did try his hand at poetry, could not write nonsense verse. ‘Topographies’ these drawings are, but they possess something more. Lear set down observantly, rightly, rhythmically, the facts of life and nature, without any high flight of poetry or imagination. (1)
(1) M. Hardie, Watercolour Painting in Britain, vol III, 1967-9, p. 43
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