Sunday, 17 July 2011

Edward Lear's Grotesque Ornithology, Anti-Colonial Bestiary






Reading Vivien Noakes's biography of nonsense poet and illustrator Edward Lear (1812-1888), I was struck by his fascination with birds.




and insects




He earned his living in his early years drawing birds in the Zoological Gardens. His Illustrations of the Family of of Psittacidae, or Parrots, was an example of his early work in 1830-1.

"he did not first kill the animal and draw the gradually decaying carcass; instead he drew the live, moving screaming bird." (Noakes: 30)

"Sitting in the parrot house he was obviously regarded as something of a curiosity himself, for the visitors came and stared at him and his work, and as a change from drawing birds he would make indignant, Doyle-like sketches of the bonneted ladies and startled gentlemen who peered at him." (Noakes: 30)

He was at his best when he was drawing majestic, unpretty birds like ravens and owls; he endowed them with sagacious personalities and it is tempting to wonder if Lear found a common bond with the birds, for they too were at the mercy of unscrupulous men. 'Comme il est charmant ce monsieur avec ses beaux yeux de verre!' a small girl said of him years later. 'Ah, que vos grand lunettes vous donnent tout /a fait l'air d'un grand hibou!'


In another line of enquiry, I recently came across further examples of the bird/human double in several shadow pictures from Japan. Are they examples of a grotesque visual ingenuity? Or simply, and wonderfully, the monstrous art of looking sideways?




Blog No. 10/1000

Further Reading

Ann C. Colley. "Edward Lear's Anti-Colonial Bestiary."  Victorian Poetry 30.2 (Summer 1992): p109-120.  

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences (2013) ... 
also available on Kindle, or to download


1 comment:

  1. I loved Edward Lear's creatures when I was little. I read Hillaire Belloc too, with his grotesque scary poems about children burned by fire or eaten by lions. He used these as warnings against immoderate or dishonest behaviour. Lear inspired me to spend a long time in my room inventing creatures, including a book where the creature was split into 3 sections each on its own flap. Each section could then be turned to create endless grotesque variations. This may have been the start of my interest in monsters and 'others'.

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