Robert McCracken Peck’s “The Natural History of Edward Lear” is, in part, a concise biography of the great Victorian artist, traveler and nonsense poet, but more particularly a celebration of Lear’s youthful work as an illustrator of plants and animals. Beautifully produced, this is a title that serious book shops will be recommending as an ideal gift for the holidays.
That doesn’t mean it’s just a volume of pretty — very pretty — pictures. Peck, described as “a naturalist, writer, and historian with a special interest in the intersection of science and art,” knows his stuff, having curated an exhibition of Lear’s paintings at Harvard’s Houghton Library. But he writes a friendly, easygoing prose and keeps all his chapters brief, sometimes no longer than a page or two. Through careful design, the book’s images and text are also neatly integrated.
Edward Lear was born in 1812, the 20th of 21 children. With almost no formal schooling, he was largely self-taught as a draftsman and painter, earning small amounts by selling anatomical and botanical drawings. But while still a teenager, Lear began to sketch the animals in the London Zoo, especially the parrots. Having learned lithography, he then turned his notebook drawings into a suite of 42 hand-colored plates that would make up “Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots.” Issued in parts between 1830 and 1832, this is one of the most glorious volumes of natural history in all the 19th century — even John James Audubon bought a copy. If you do the math, you’ll see that Lear was still in his teens when it began to appear. Over the next few years, he would draw birds and mammals for virtually all the major naturalists in England.
Of these the most important was the Earl of Derby, who set up a private zoo on his country estate and hired the artistic prodigy to draw its animals. One sketch of a thrush survives with Lear’s notes to himself on how to transform the rough image into a work of avian beauty: “More graceful . . . make the head smaller . . . eye greener . . . plumes very silky.” In 1846, the seemingly tireless artist was asked to give drawing lessons to the young Queen Victoria.
By then, however, Lear had begun to weary of feathers and fur — the close-up work strained his weak eyes — and so, in his late 30s, he reinvented himself as a landscape specialist. Over the subsequent years he traveled extensively and painted picturesque vistas in “Sicily, southern Calabria, the Kingdom of Naples, Malta, Corfu, the Ionian Islands, Greece, Thebes, Constantinople, Albania, Egypt, Palestine, Sinai and Mount Olympus.” He visited legendary Petra — that “rose-red city half as old as time” — and even spent two months in India. From his home in Italy, Lear would sell drawings and watercolors to the well-to-do as visual souvenirs of their time on the Grand Tour. He also published his own books, such as “Views in Rome and its Environs” and “Journals of a Landscape Painter in Greece and Albania.” In fact, he wrote as engagingly as he drew, and even his casual letters to friends are worth reading. Lear died at his home in San Remo in 1888.
While Edward Lear was a magnificent painter of exotic animals and places, he nonetheless found immortality in his work for children. Peck includes a chapter on Lear’s playfully surreal botanical drawings, such as his picture of the “Manypeeplia Upsidownia,” which shows tiny little men hanging like leaves from a plant’s stalk. Other chapters then trace Lear’s influence on several later artists, including Beatrix Potter, Edward Gorey and the English editorial cartoonist Nicholas Garland.
Because “The Natural History of Edward Lear” emphasizes Lear’s pictorial art, you will want to acquire another book to enjoy his comic writing. I recommend the scholarly Penguin edition of “The Complete Verse and Other Nonsense,” edited by Vivien Noakes. That “Other Nonsense” includes Lear’s humorous prose, represented by some exquisitely tongue-in-cheek stories: “Now the Clangle-Wangle is a most dangerous and delusive beast, and by no means commonly to be met with. . . . On summer evenings they may sometimes be observed near the Lake Pipple-popple, standing on their heads and humming their national melodies.”
Yet even more than his delightfully silly stories or innumerable limericks, Lear’s masterpieces are the longer poems featuring the Pobble Who Has No Toes, the Quangle Wangle Quee and, best of all, the Jumblies: “Far and few, far and few/ Are the lands where the Jumblies live;/ Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,/ And they went to sea in a sieve.” Is there, too, a sweeter love story than that of the Owl and the Pussy-cat?
“They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.”
Surprisingly, though, several of the bounciest poems are actually mini-tragedies. Like the love of Lear’s life, who rejected him, the Lady Jingly Jones refuses the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo and the Jumbly Girl cruelly abandons the Dong with the Luminous Nose. As the refrain in “Calico Pie” mourns: “They never came back!/ They never came back!/ They never came back to me!”
Still, as generations have acknowledged, “How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!” So if you need an art book for the holidays, consider Robert McCracken Peck’s “The Natural History of Edward Lear.” But if you also need a stocking stuffer, pick up a copy of the complete nonsense.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays in Style.
By Robert McCracken Peck
Godine. 222 pp. $40