Ashmolean celebrates 200 years of Nature and Nonsense with Edward Lear

By Ruth Hazard | 27 September 2012
© Private Collection
Exhibition Preview: Happy Birthday Edward Lear: 200 Years of Nature and Nonsense, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until January 6 2012

Although a number of events and exhibitions have helped to mark the bicentenary of Edward Lear’s birth, the Ashmolean is the home of the largest and most comprehensive collection of his work. This major retrospective covers the full breadth of his career.

Edward Lear was widely known for his literary nonsense in poetry and prose but primarily he saw himself as an artist.

The 20th child born to Jeremiah and Ann, on May 12 1812, Lear was sociable and immensely engaging. But he was also an epileptic prone to long fits of melancholy, once declaring that “I hate life unless I work always”.

© Private Collection
Here his work is ordered chronologically, with watercolours, oil paintings, manuscripts and illustrated books reflecting every aspect of his artistic output.

Among the highlights are watercolours of animals and birds, sketches made during his travels in Greece, Italy, Egypt, India and the Near East and a group of Tennyson illustrations which he spent the final 20 years of his life completing.

Copies of Lear’s travel volumes, the natural history publications to which he contributed and the principal editions of his nonsense books have been acquired for the exhibition, as well as examples of the sketches and self-portraits he gave to his friends, together with a nonsense alphabet composed for the newly-born Ruth Decie in 1862.

“Edward Lear is one of the most extraordinary figures in Victorian England,” says Senior Curator Colin Harrison.

“He was one of the greatest of all natural history illustrators, a highly original artist who travelled more widely and recorded the landscape more faithfully than almost any other, and also an endearing writer whose experiments with words long predate those of Lewis Carroll.”
  • Open 10am-6pm (closed Monday). Admission £4/£3.
More pictures:

Lear became well known for his illustrations of natural history© University of Oxford
A rarely seen oil painting of Beachy Head is one of the works on display at the Ashmolean© Private Collection
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