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Exhibitions: Edward Lear

David Attenborough

Sir David Attenborough
© John Cairns photography

"I think he's probably the best ornithological illustrator that ever was," said fan David Attenborough (right). "They are magnificent – not only scientifically correct but as works of art, they are amazing." The Guardian

Galleries 58 & 61

The bicentenary of the birth of Edward Lear is being celebrated with events and exhibitions throughout the English-speaking world. As the home of the largest and most comprehensive collection of his work in the UK, the Ashmolean is mounting a retrospective exhibition covering all aspects of his career. From early natural history illustrations and extraordinary landscape sketches, to the nonsense drawings and verses for which Lear is so well known, the exhibition presents 100 works of art from the Ashmolean’s own Lear collection and important loans from the Bodleian Library and works from private collections, many of which will go on public display for the first time.

Edward Lear is one of the most notable artists and popular writers of the Victorian period. Although best known for his literary nonsense in poetry and prose, Lear saw himself primarily as an artist. ‘Happy Birthday Edward Lear’ presents his work chronologically, with watercolours, oil paintings, manuscripts, and illustrated books carefully selected to reflect every aspect of his artistic output. Among the highlights are watercolours of animals and birds; sketches made during his travels in Greece, Italy, Egypt and the Near East, and India; and a group of the Tennyson illustrations on which he spent the last twenty years of his life. Lear’s work as a painter in oils is represented by rarely seen evocations of Beachy Head, Venice, and landscapes in the Near East; and the great view of Jerusalem, painted in 1865, now in the Ashmolean.

More than 30 loans from the University of Oxford’s libraries and private collections will bring together editions of the books Lear illustrated early in his career. These include copies of Lear’s travel books; the natural history publications to which he contributed; and the principal editions of his nonsense books.