© THE ROYAL SOCIETYThe nonsense poetry and lighthearted sketches of Edward Lear (1812–1888) have charmed children and escapists for nearly 200 years. But this playful poet is much less well-known for his influential work as a scientific illustrator, in the league of John J. Audubon and John Gould. While Lear’s loony limericks provided a welcome respite from Victorian-era earnestness, his hundreds of scientific illustrations were firmly rooted in reality, crafted from living subjects with meticulous methods and in painstaking detail. “I am never pleased with a drawing unless I make it from life,” Lear wrote in 1831. This technique contrasted with the methods employed by other illustrators of the day, such as Gould, a prominent naturalist who based his drawings on dead specimens, only guessing at their natural stances. Lear strove to capture not just a subject’s appearance, but a glimpse of its nature as well—elevating the standards for documenting flora and fauna.
Before Lear could travel the globe—he became a ceaseless wanderer later in his career—he relied on the local zoo and private menageries for exotic subjects collected from far-off places. After the London Zoo opened in 1828, Lear visited frequently, befriending the zookeepers and gaining access to cages, where he could measure his subjects’ wings and limbs and observe their natural postures. “That kind of access was extremely important to him,” says Robert McCracken Peck, senior fellow and art curator of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia. In 1830, the zoo issued Lear formal permission to have free, unlimited access.
Although his fascination with scientific illustration did not last long—by 1836, Lear had grown tired of the necessary attention to detail—his work was highly respected. Charles Darwin called one of Lear’s illustrated books a “great work,” and borrowed it from the Royal Society Library prior to publishing The Origin of Species. Even Audubon, who was typically critical of peers, acknowledged the quality of his work. Lear’s 1832 book of 42 brilliantly colored and detailed drawings of the zoo’s parrot collection, the first book on a single family of animals, won him high praise—but not financial stability. To pay the bills, Lear took a job with Gould, helping him illustrate European birds and instructing Gould’s wife, Elizabeth, while she made lithographs of birds for Darwin’s Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. (Lear is rumored to have done some of the book’s illustrations, but no proof has yet been found.)
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’