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Review: Happy Birthday Edward Lear

Edward Lear is mainly known for his nonsense drawings, poems and children’s books.  The new exhibition at the Ashmolean aims to introduce us to a whole other side of the man, and show us the great artistic skill which often goes unacknowledged. 

He was born in 1812, the penultimate of 21 children.  He first travelled aboard, to Italy, in 1837, and thus began a lifelong fascination with travel.  He was a troubled man, suffering from epilepsy, insecurity and loneliness, and he saw his travel as a way of compensating for this.  He is said to have proclaimed “I HATE LIFE unless I WORK always”.  The exhibition opens with a series of studies, mainly of birds.  Many of these pieces are plates or studies, in watercolour and other media, commissioned by John Gould (then principal curator and taxidermist for London Zoo) for his 1837 book ‘Birds of Europe’, among other Natural History books.  These are large volumes created for scientists, which is reflected in Lear’s drawings: the details are minute.  The highlight piece of this section is a yellow macaw, from Lear’s own ‘Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidea, or Parrots’, which is beautifully detailed, with astonishingly bright colours.  It is these pieces which have most likely drawn people to the exhibition; they are featured in all the publicity, but it almost feels as if the curator has acknowledged that there is not enough in them to sustain an entire exhibition.  They were made principally for a scientific purpose, not as art for display.  Hanging them in the corridor, a space we naturally progress through has eliminated the potential for them to become the viewer’s sole focus. 

The main gallery space is a single room, and hung almost exclusively with landscapes.  Lear was able to travel greatly thanks to having widely spread friends and patrons who commissioned him to draw various places, for instance India, the Holy Land, and Istanbul.  The landscapes he created are often of near fantastical scenes, with extraordinary light conditions, and often of imposing mountain landscapes, appealing to a sense for the exotic and adventurous. The cases in the centre bring the exhibition together well; they contain for the most part his published travel journals, which he of course illustrated, and his nonsense drawings, poems and children’s books, which enabled him to afford to travel.   Also included are some of his illustrations for Tennyson poems.

The real test of the exhibition is that one does not have to be familiar with Lear’s nonsense children’s books to find real merit and interest.   It resists the temptation to constantly justify his appeal as an artist, and lets his art speak for itself.  The Ashmolean remains one of the country’s best museum experiences, and this exhibition is no exception.

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