“Water Shrews” painted by Edward Lear
by Robert McCraken Peck, Curator of Art and Artifacts and Senior Fellow of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA 19103.
Although Edward Lear (1812–1888) is best remembered today for his humorous limericks and nonsense poetry, he made his living as an artist, traveling widely in Europe, the Middle East and India while creating wonderful paintings of the areas he saw. His landscape paintings appear for sale in galleries and auction houses on a pretty regular basis, but there has not been a large, commercial exhibition of his work for more than twenty years. The London art dealer Guy Peppiatt organized such an exhibit virtually through his gallery this spring (2021). It included two of Lear’s illustrated limericks, and more than twenty-five landscape paintings from all periods of his life (catalogue).
Of special interest to me in the exhibit was one of Lear’s rare natural history paintings, a charming watercolour of a pair of water shrews. When it was painted, in 1832, Lear was just twenty years old and at the beginning of a decade-long period of life in which he focused almost exclusively on natural history subjects. The young artist had recently attracted the attention of the scientific world with a self-published monograph on the parrots of the world, Illustrations of the family of Psittacidae or parrots (1830–1832), which was based on live birds he had studied at the London Zoo and in private aviaries across England. While the book was not a financial success, selling fewer than 200 copies, it made Lear something of a celebrity in the field of wildlife illustration. He went on to create illustrations for John Gould (1804–1881), Sir William Jardine (1800–1874), Prideaux John Selby (1788–1867), Thomas Campbell Eyton (1809–1880) and others.
The shrew painting in Peppiatt’s exhibition was probably painted for Thomas Bell (1792–1880). Bell used it, along with several other paintings by Lear, as a source for one of the illustrations in his book, A history of British quadrupeds (1837).
Bell was a dental surgeon at Guy’s Hospital and the author of a comprehensive textbook entitled the anatomy, physiology and diseases of teeth, a textbook about which he published in 1829. But his interests went well beyond dentistry. His expertise in several fields of natural history was recognized by his election to the Royal Society in 1828 and his appointment as a Professor of Zoology at King’s College London from 1836 to 1861. Bell wrote the herpetological volume for the Zoology of the voyage of HMS Beagle, edited by Charles Darwin, and a number of widely cited books and papers on mammals, crustaceans, and reptiles. As president of the Linnean Society of London from 1853 to1861, he presided over the famous meeting at which Charles Darwin’s and Alfred Russell Wallace’s papers on natural selection were read (July 1, 1858).
Bell was among the earliest of England’s scientific establishment to encourage Lear’s talents as an illustrator. He commissioned Lear to make a number of illustrations for him. The last of these to come on the art market was a beautiful Rock Hyrax, also painted in in 1832, that was sold by Thomas Agnew and Son in 1983.1
Strangely, despite their close friendship, which lasted until the end of Bell’s life, Bell was guilty of using some of Lear’s work in his publications without giving him the recognition he deserved. When he published A history of British quadrupeds, Bell credited two other artists with the illustrations.2 Edward Lear’s own copy of the book, presented to Lear “with the author’s affectionate regards,” belies such a claim.3 In it, Lear noted seven illustrations for which he was responsible. “Drawn from life by me, Edward Lear” or a similar statement are written in pencil beside the wood-engravings of the Greater Horseshoe Bat, the Hedgehog, the Common Shrew, the Water Shrew, the Ferret Weasel, and the Brown Rat.4 Confirming his claims of authorship, Lear’s original watercolors of several of these subjects, posed in the same manner as they appear in Bell’s book, survive, including the water shrews that has just been sold.5
Bell was much more generous in granting Lear credit as the lithographer for a large monograph on turtles, A monograph of the Testudinata, which he created in eight parts between 1832 and 1842. In this highly acclaimed work, described by historian Kraig Adler as “the single most outstanding collection of turtle illustrations ever produced,” Lear’s name appears prominently on the plates, alongside that of the illustrator, James de Carle Sowerby (1787–1871).6 A few surviving watercolors of turtles suggest that Lear may have contributed original illustrations to Bell’s work.7 They confirm that he would have been capable of doing them entirely on his own, had he been invited to do so.
Lear’s extraordinary talent as a wildlife artist, and his relationship with Bell and other naturalists, are discussed in detail in my book The natural history of Edward Lear, a new and expanded edition of which has been published by Princeton University Press (2021).
If anyone reading this essay is aware of other natural history paintings by Edward Lear, I would be delighted to know about them. As Curator of Art and Artifacts at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (Drexel University), I can be reached by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert McCracken Peck
12 May 2021
For more information on Edward Lear see here:
- The Remarkable Nature of Edward Lear, public lecture by Robert McCracken Peck (2019) available on Youtube.
- How Edward Lear’s artistic genius led to the Owl and the Pussycat by Donna Ferguson, The Guardian (31 Jan 2021)
- The Edward Lear Society
1 A preliminary sketch for this painting is in the collection of Houghton Library, Harvard University (MS Typ 55.12, fol. 14)
2 In the introduction to his book, Bennett writes “He [the author] also feels bound to acknowledge how much the work is indebted to the artists Mr Dickes and Mr. Vasey, by whom the whole of the illustrations have been drawn and engraved.” p. xii.
3 Lear’s copy of the book is now owned by Houghton Library, Harvard University.
4 The page numbers for these illustrations are as follows: The Greater Horseshoe Bat (pp. 68 and 72), the Hedgehog (p. 76), the Common Shrew (p. 109), the Water Shrew (p. 115), the Ferret Weasel (p. 161), and the Brown Rat (p. 315).
5 Another of these – the Hedgehog – is in the Houghton Library collection (MS Typ 55.12 fol.4r)
6 Eight parts of this important monograph were completed in the 1830s, but the book was not brought to completion until 1872 when it was published under the title Tortoises, terrapins, and turtles with a short text by John Edward Gray. For more on this important publication, for which Lear was creating lithographic plates as early as 1832, see Kraig Adler (introduction and commentary) Thomas Bell: a monograph of the Testudinata (New York: Octavo Editions, 1999). See also R. J. Cleevely, “The Sowerbys and their publications in light of the manuscript material in the British Museum (Natural History),” Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, 1976, 7(4), 343–368. I am grateful to R. J. Cleevely for the information he has shared about Thomas Bell and his relationship with Edward Lear.
7 Two watercolors of a water turtle (Leopondus yagovarondi) at Knowsley Hall reveal Lear’s ability to paint turtles without reliance on Sowerby. A pencil sketch of the lower carapace of a tortoise in the Houghton Library (MS Typ 55.9 ) and a watercolor study in a private collection may relate to Bell’s publication.