Edward Lear - bird artist

Best known for his nonsense poems, Lear was a remarkable painter.

Edward Lear – bird artist
19th October 2012 Jane Tomlinson

Today we visited the Happy Birthday Edward Lear exhibition at the Ashmolean in Oxford. Edward Lear is best known for his nonsense verse, (who hasn’t heard of the Owl and the Pussycat?) and although this is quite brilliantly original and what he’s best remembered for, I especially wanted to see his paintings of birds.

Woo! They didn’t disappoint!

His exquisite observations are correct in anatomical detail but also express something of the character and habits of each species. Lear set ludicrously high standards in bird art which have rarely been exceeded. His work was admired by both ornithological taxonomist John Gould and the legendary John James ‘Birds of America’ Audubon.

Sir David Attenborough says: “I think he’s probably the best ornithological illustrator that ever was”. But I disagree with Sir Dave on this one – I think Audubon slips in at Number One, but only just!

As a big fan of the sadly-now-extinct Great Auk, my heart did a little leap when I clapped eyes on his watercolour study of this fine long-lost bird.

Also on show at the Ashmolean are some of Lear’s lovely illustrations for his nonsense poetry – “R was a rabbit, Who had a bad habit, Of eating the flowers, In gardens and bowers r! Naughty fat rabbit!

Lear’s notated watercolour sketches of his travels around Europe and the Middle East were never meant to be anything more than studies to be worked up into more detailed paintings, but they stand alone in their own right. Indeed as a mad keen on-the-spot sketcher myself, I felt there was more of the man in the sketches, all of which were made right there in front of the subject. His notations and jottings made them even more human, like diary entries.

But for me the best thing of all in the entire exhibition was this teeny weeny watercolour of a feather and Lear’s business card. In a single square inch where the filaments of the feather overlap the business card Lear has achieved a breathtaking mastery of watercolour, a sensitivity of touch and a level of observation which if I painted 24 hours a day for the rest of my life I could never ever reach.