Today is the birthday of artist and writer Edward Lear (books by this author), born in the London suburb of Holloway (1812). Most people know him today as a nonsense poet and a master of the limerick, a humorous poetic form that had been gaining in popularity since the early 1820s. He was the 20th of 21 children born to Ann and Jeremiah Lear, and he suffered his first epileptic seizure when he was about five or six years old. He felt a lot of embarrassment and guilt because of his seizures, and referred to the disorder as “the Demon.” He also suffered frequent bouts of depression, which he called “the Morbids.” When his father went bankrupt, Edward’s upbringing became his much-older sister Ann’s responsibility.
When he was 15, his father was sent to debtors’ prison, so Lear began working as an artist and illustrator to help pay his family’s expenses. He was very gifted at drawing birds and animals, and got a job with the London Zoological Society. In 1832, Lord Stanley, the Earl of Derby, invited Lear to come and paint the exotic animals in his menagerie. Lear ended up living at Stanley’s estate at Knowsley for several years. When he wasn’t working on his drawings and paintings, he would entertain the youngest members of the Stanley family with silly stories and verses. A Book of Nonsense, which he published in 1846, sold very well and helped make the limerick verse popular.
Lear’s most famous poem is “The Owl and the Pussycat” (1867). He dedicated it to the children of the Earl of Stanley. He also published several travel books. The paintings and illustrations he made of the Stanley menagerie were published as Gleanings from the Menagerie at Knowsley Hall (1846).