A Poet and Artist Who Brought Nature to Colorful Life

“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.”

Even if you don’t know the name Edward Lear, you probably know his most famous poem, The Owl and the Pussy-cat. His first collection of poems, A Book of Nonsense—first published in 1846 and re-released in 1861—shot him to fame in his native England as an author of charming verse and playful limericks. But Lear’s success surprised him as he always considered himself not a poet, but an artist—in particular, a scientific illustrator.

Lear started drawing when he was still a teenager, at first specializing in birds. When he was just 18—more than a decade before he became a published poet—he published a book of illustrations of parrots in the London Zoo. Lear was one of the first scientific illustrators to perfect the printing technique of lithography, in which an artist makes a print from an image drawn on a slab of stone. The surface of the stone is treated to repel ink, while the image is drawn using a greasy pencil or crayon to which the ink naturally adheres. A skilled artist such as Lear can then hand-color the resulting single-color print, producing beautiful illustrations that can be reproduced in multiple copies for commercial publication.

Lear eventually branched out from birds, contributing his skill to several illustrated works about natural history. One of the finest was Tortoises, Terrapins, and Turtles: Drawn from Life, written by zoologist Thomas Bell as an attempt to describe and detail every species of this reptile group known at the time. Lear prepared the lithographic art for printing and publication from original drawings by James De Carle Sowerby, himself a distinguished natural history artist. Published in 1872, when Lear was 60, Tortoises, Terrapins, and Turtles is a masterpiece of artistic ability in service of observing the natural world. You can see The Nat’s copy of this stunning volume in Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science, and learn about Lear and other citizen scientist artists who have used their talent to show us new things about nature.

One of the illustrations created by Edward Lear and James De Carle Sowerby for Tortoises, Terrapins, and Turtles: Drawn from Life (1872)

One of the illustrations created by Edward Lear and James De Carle Sowerby for Tortoises, Terrapins, and Turtles: Drawn from Life (1872)

One of the illustrations created by Edward Lear and James De Carle Sowerby for Tortoises, Terrapins, and Turtles: Drawn from Life (1872)


Posted By Senior Exhibit Developer Erica Kelly.

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