Edward Lear: lover of pelicans, limericks. London exhibit of his landscapes and birds

In the exhibition on Edward Lear at the Royal Academy here, there is a section devoted entirely to the pelican. Not that this strange bird was by any means the only wonder of ornithology to delight, inspire, or be studied by the Victorian landscape painter, who became even better known as a writer of nonsense verse and popularizer of the limerick. His earliest artistic achievement of note was a fine book of lithographs exclusively of the parrot family. Subsequently no fewer than three species of parrots were named after him. And then, of course, there was the limerick of the ``Old Man with a beard,'' in which ``Two Owls and a Hen, four larks and a Wren'' all built their nests. And there was the owl who went to sea with a pussycat. And the duck who hitched a world tour on the tail of a kangaroo, and quite a number of birds of single color. This exhibition emphasizes the pelican specifically because Lear's responses to it indicate the whole of Lear.

Edward Lear was born in 1812 in Holloway, near London. From the age of 15 he earned his living by drawing, employed at various times by the Zoological Society of London, the British Museum, and the Earl of Derby (whose private menagerie he recorded). Lear published his first volume of verse, ``The Book of Nonsense,'' in 1846, and it became as popular in drawing rooms across the land as in nurseries. Three more books of nonsense verse followed before his death in 1888.

But back to the pelican. It was one of the birds Lear drew as a young ornithological draftsman. As a traveler (and he was a restless, indefatigable traveler), he encountered pelicans en masse on the western coast of Albania. It was a further group of them on the Nile that inspired a ``Laughable Lyric'' he wrote, called ``The Pelican Chorus,'' which he also set to music. He was a prolific diarist and letter-writer -- and pelicans again featured in both these contexts.

It was, however, as a landscape painter that Lear took himself most seriously, and a watercolor and lithograph of the Albanian coast in this show further demonstrate his fascination with pelicans: They are given a prominent place in the foreground of both pictures.

The entire exhibition, which continues until July 14, explores all the various aspects of Lear, offering a rounded assessment.

Despite a physical handicap and an enthusiasm for self-depreciation, he was a persistent self-improver. But his natural talents flourished most happily when the pressures of earning money or of the British 19th-century brand of artistic perfectionism were least dominant. When he could let his hair down and forget his woes by making children laugh with his nonsense or adults chuckle with his conversation, his rich imagination was let loose, and his ideas and techniques became lovable and deliciously daft.

His limericks are little masterpieces of the unexpected letdown. They are predicaments without stuffy morals attached. They are happenings of sudden ecstasy or incredible bathos. And they go wherever the whimsy of rhyme takes them, be the conclusion disastrous or cheerful.

Lear's verbal nonsense was perfectly matched by his visual nonsense, and happily the organizers of the exhibition have not resisted the temptation to punctuate it wherever possible with his deft little caricatures -- of himself, or his cat, Foss, or of birds, or of absurd incidents on his travels. Once his pen was engaged on this sort of foolery, it marvelously forgot to be scrupulous and finicky. Correctness was a special Victorian scourge, and it worried Lear as much as anyone else. But his funny squibs, written or drawn, are still immediate and alive and remarkably timeless.

His serious landscapes are a rather different matter. The persistent need to produce either the salable or the exhibitable tyrannized him. The strange thing is that when he turned, in his 20s, from the detailed illustration of natural history of birds and mammals -- at which he was outstanding -- and determined to become a landscape painter, his natural abilities with pen and brush seemed almost to elude him.

He didn't become clumsy, or even exactly careless, but his sketches (he left the world at least 7,000 watercolors), for all their popularity today with collectors of Victorian art, tend to be topographical notations in a rather habitual style, or seem to be aware of the sublimity of a subject but unable to avoid taming it.

The artists Lear admired, rather unattainably, are telling. Turner threw him into despair at his own shortcomings, and Frederick Church, the American painter of sublime landscapes (famous for his magnificent depictions of the Andes, the Arctic, and Niagara Falls), he called a ``delight'' and a great ``benefactor to his art and his country.''

Contrary to expectation, it is in his oil paintings rather than his watercolors that a certain stature emerges. Fewer than 20 are shown, out of the more than 300 he painted. Despite Lear's anxiety about his lack of training in the use of oil paint, and his undoubtedly mixed motives in trying to make these works noticeable at the Royal Academy, the struggle was often worth it.

A couple of early oils show that he knew perfectly well how to handle the medium: ``Temple of Venus in Rome'' is assured and has something of the enjoyable sunny authority of a good Corot. And his ``Tree Roots,'' an outdoor study of a section of roots, earth, foliage, and tree trunks, is like D"urer's small renderings of plants and grasses combined with the airy decorativeness of antique Roman wall painting.

And then came Holman Hunt -- and the sort of doubts and relearning processes that go with admiration, even overadmiration, of another artist's brilliant and fanatical new vision and technique. And more self-doubts as he went to ``art school'' for the first time, undergoing the rigors of drawing from the antique. Perhaps he would have done better simply following the inclination of his own self-taught talents. Nevertheless his large ``Bassae'' would not have had the undoubted power and exactitude it has without the pre-Raphaelite Hunt's influence and teaching, nor would an impressive late painting of cliffs on the Nile.

These are the sheer cliffs at Kasr-es-Saiyyad, an atypical subject for a Victorian travel painter. Lear's painting shows him at his best as a serious landscapist: It has breadth and a hallucinatory light, and it expresses the atmospheric torpidity of the place with palpable strangeness. He was even pleased with himself. He wrote to a friend that when he saw it at the home of its purchaser, Lady Ashburton, he found it ``set into the wall in [a] vast black frame all the room being gilt leather. Never saw anything so fine of my own doing -- & walked afterwards with an elevated & superb deportment & a sweet smile on everybody I met.'' There was an Old Man with a beard, Who said, `It is just as I feared! -- Two Owls and a Hen, four larks and a Wren, Have all built their nests in my beard.'

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