Surprising versatility is revealed as Ashmolean celebrates his bicentenary
There once was a man known for his nonsense – but Edward Lear should also be known as one of the most wonderful of all British landscape painters and perhaps the finest illustrator of birds, a new exhibition to mark his bicententary contends.
The Ashmolean in Oxford on Thursday opens a show celebrating the talents of a man rightly known for his nonsense verse, but who was also much more than that.
"I think he's probably the best ornithological illustrator that ever was," said fan and collector David Attenborough. "They are magnificent – not only scientifically correct but as works of art, they are amazing."
Attenborough is among the lenders to what is the biggest Lear show since a Royal Academy survey back in 1985. It includes 100 works that show Lear's astonishing versatility, covering his life from beginning to end and showing his early natural history drawings, his nonsense (of course), copies of his travel books, and his spectacular landscapes – "They are so extraordinarily evocative and beautiful and emotional," said the show's curator, Colin Harrison.
It is an unusual show because it was quite hastily put together. Harrison said everyone had thought Tate was going to have a Lear bicentenary exhibition, and when that proved not the case the Ashmolean, with its extensive Lear holdings, felt almost honour-bound to fill the gap.
The last-minute nature of mounting the show meant they had to rely more heavily on private lenders rather than museums. "Institutional lenders require at least six months' notice and we didn't have that," said Harrison.
The private loans do at least mean that many works are going on display for the first time in years – or indeed the first time ever.
Then there are works from the institution's own collection. Harrison said Lear's 1880 oil painting of The Plains of Lombardy from Monte Generoso was "one of my absolute favourites" of all the paintings in the Ashmolean.
"It is the one, I think, of all the pictures in this collection that would fit most perfectly in my house."
There was no thesis to the exhibition, no big argument other than "I hope to persuade people resoundingly that Lear was a wonderful artist and that his 200th birthday deserves to be celebrated properly," he said.
Attenborough said it was good to show this relatively unknown side of Lear to an audience who might automatically associate him with The Owl and the Pussycat.
Lear was a fascinating man even aside from his art, suffering his whole life from terrible depressions and black days, which he marked asterisks in his diaries. He was lonely for much of his life. Yet he had a fantastic sense of humour and fun.
That side is covered for nonsense fans with many examples of his verse and illustrations in the show. Not least:
There was a Young Lady of Parma, Whose conduct grew calmer and calmer: When they said, "Are you dumb?" She merely said, "Hum!"
That provoking Young Lady of Parma.
• Happy Birthday Edward Lear: 200 Years of Nature and Nonsense is at the Ashmolean until 6 January.