(born May 12, 1812, Highgate, near London, England—died January 29, 1888, San Remo, Italy), is now best remembered for nonsense verses including ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat’, ‘The Jumblies’, and ‘The Quangle Wangle’s Hat’. He popularised the limerick with A Book of Nonsense (1846) in which many Old Persons and a few younger ones indulge in wonderfully eccentric behaviour. He illustrated his verse with cartoons so imaginative and energetic that they still leap off the page.

Lear was an artist of surpassing skill, who began his career producing exquisite studies of animals and birds, many of them new to science. He contributed to the field of natural history and remained throughout his life an acute observer of flora and fauna. From the 1830s, he began to specialise in landscape painting, producing in his lifetime some ten thousand watercolours and three hundred oils which, in his own words, were characterised by both ‘delicacy’ and ‘finish’. He was also an intrepid and compulsive traveller who published illustrated accounts of his journeys in the wilder and more remote parts of Italy, Greece, Corsica, and Albania. His sojourns in the Middle East, Egypt, and India also resulted in travel journals and paintings that offer a lasting record of the landscapes, costumes, and characters he encountered. His achievements are all the more extraordinary because Lear suffered from childhood-onset epilepsy and from depression – ‘the morbids’ – which sometimes prostrated him, but which also drove him to furious bursts of activity.

Lear was a gifted amateur musician, a singer and a composer. He published twelve settings of his friend Tennyson’s poems and a couple of nonsense songs, but improvised music to many more works, including the poetry of Shelley and Swinburne. Many of his own nonsense verses also had music. Lear was excellent company and made friends wherever he went. By his own account, he corresponded with ‘every created human being capable of writing since the invention of letters’, except ‘the prophet Ezekiel, Mary Queen of Scots, and the Venerable Bede’. His self-invention as a character – a small, tubby, myopic cartoon figure – has been hugely successful in winning him sympathy in every generation. It has, however, sometimes been so successful in figuring him as childlike that it has obscured the range of his intellectual, cultural and political ideas and interests. New work, particularly since his bicentenary, has sought to broaden our view of Lear and to highlight his many connections with the life of his times.


sara lodge

author of 'inventing edward lear'

© Michael Wharley

Sara Lodge is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, specialising in nineteenth-century literature and culture. She received her BA (Hons) from Cambridge and her DPhil from Oxford University, where she was a lecturer before coming to St Andrews. She has also worked as a speechwriter for the Secretary-General at the United Nations in New York. As a journalist, she writes regularly for the British and American press. She has appeared on BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour talking about Victorian vampires; on the Radio 4 Playlist series talking about John Clare; and co-produced and presented a series of BBC Radio 3’s ‘The Essay’ on Edward Lear to commemorate his bicentenary.

Sara’s latest book, Inventing Edward Lear (Harvard University Press, 2018) examines Lear's musical sound-world and the importance of his background as a musician and composer to his most famous nonsense poems. The book also deals with image and text in Lear's artistic work, with his self-elected membership of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and with other neglected aspects of his self-invention, from his religious nonconformity to his life-long habit of self-caricature. Sara is herself a painter, a jazz singer, and a published writer of short stories, so she feels a natural affinity for cross-disciplinary work. She is the author of three books and over thirty articles and chapters on nineteenth-century literature. She wrote the first modern critical monograph about the social protest poet, artist, and humourist Thomas Hood (1799-1845); she has also written a book about the critical history of Jane Eyre. Her most recent research project is a book on Victorian women detectives. Her research on Edward Lear has been funded by the Carnegie Trust, the Russell Trust, the Leverhulme Foundation and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.