The Natural History of Edward Lear

Edward Lear, if recognized at all, is most commonly remembered as the endearing master of nonsense verse (e.g. the owl and the pussycat who went to sea in a pea-green boat) and for his enduring limericks (he virtually invented the form). But the first manifestation of his genius was his penchant for drawing—and especially for capturing animals directly from life. He was, like many of his English contemporaries, precocious, displaying his talent at a shockingly early age and publishing his first book, a monograph on the parrot family, when he was only eighteen. In it, he created what is still acknowledged as one of the premier, early works of lithography (Lear worked directly on the stones) and established a format that would be followed for decades by such publishers as Gould, with whom he worked closely and often anonymously. But the first decade of his artistic life was primarily devoted to creating works of natural history, working with the infrastructure of British scientists, collectors, and publishers who made that country the nexus for scientific investigation and its dissemination for much of the nineteenth century.

Despite his fragile health (he was almost certainly a diabetic and suffered from chronic bronchitis and asthma his entire life), Lear was blessed with a sanguine disposition, a gift for making friends and attracting supporters. And he was incredibly prolific, producing an impressive number of drawings for scientific publications, a large number of superb natural history paintings, and countless detailed and delicate drawings for public institutions and private patrons, not just of English species, but of birds and mammals from as far afield as Australia, New Zealand, and the Americas.

Robert Peck has masterfully assembled and evaluated this diverse material and written the first book to fully explore Lear’s talents as a natural history artist. Augmented by over 200 full-color illustrations, many of them drawn from the extraordinary collection at the Houghton Library at Harvard, extended to include the influence Lear has had on such modern artists and illustrators as Walton Ford and Tony Foster, and enlivened by a Foreword by Sir David Attenborough, this book goes far beyond the scope of a dry scholarly study. It is a fascinating exploration of the dawn of natural history’s golden age of color, made more so by Lear’s humor, travels, friends, and his extravagant gifts as an artist.


Beautifully produced, this is a title that serious book shops will be recommending as an ideal gift for the holidays….That doesn’t mean it’s just a volume of pretty — very pretty — pictures. Peck…writes a friendly, easy­going prose and keeps all his chapters brief, sometimes no longer than a page or two. Through careful design, the book’s images and text are also neatly integrated…If you need an art book for the holidays, consider Robert McCracken Peck’s The Natural History of Edward Lear. —Washington Post

 The focus of the book is on Lear as a painter of natural history, with plenty of his illustrations beautifully reproduced within. This is a keepsake for fans of Lear and anyone interested in art and natural history. —Publishers Weekly

This beautiful, richly illustrated and carefully researched volume by Robert McCracken Peck is to be warmly welcomed. It is a very useful contribution to the furtherance of our understanding of this extraordinary man – The Times Literary Supplement


Peck has an obvious passion for his subject and so Lear emerges as a vibrant individual from the archival materials Peck has plumbed. This is an essential acquisition for libraries with natural history and art collections. —Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries



Open this exquisite retrospective of Edward Lear…[and] you will also come to appreciate him as a consummate observer of nature, and that is how the artist himself might have wished to be remembered.—Natural History Magazine

As expected from one of America’s most notable small publishers, The Natural History of Edward Lear is beautifully designed, with flawlessly reproduced color illustrations, some never published before.”— Birding Magazine

We would like to recommend Dr. Robert McCracken Peck’s recent wonderful publication, The Natural History of Edward Lear, in which he explores Lear’s leading role in the history of bird illustration and art. —The Edward Lear Society


For almost 200 years, through his verses, books, and paintings, Edward Lear has given pleasure to innumerable people on many subjects. Until now, his interest in natural history has been rarely explored. In this well researched, engagingly written, and beautifully illustrated book, Robert Peck establishes Lear’s leading place in the history of bird illustration and art. There is much to learn about his extraordinary life, and many of his paintings of birds and mammals are reproduced here for the first time.
Christine E. Jackson, F.L.S., author of Dictionary of Bird Artists of the World, Great Bird Paintings: The Old Masters, and Menageries in Britain 1100–2000

This beautiful book illuminates the career and work of one of the most broad-ranging artists of the nineteenth century. Peck brings to his subject the depth of knowledge and understanding necessary to illuminate the forces that enabled Lear, against enormous odds, to become one of the premier naturalist artists and landscape painters of his generation.
Amy Meyers, Director at the Yale Center for British Art

What a marvelous book!  Bob Peck’s scholarship, in-depth research, and clear narrative illuminate a fascinating period in the natural sciences and bring new significance to Edward Lear’s art and work.
Leslie K. Overstreet, Curator of Natural-History Rare Books, Smithsonian Institution Libraries

In words and striking images, The Natural History of Edward Lear reveals the unique and enduring impact this remarkable personality had on the art of his own time — and how he continues to inspire both artists and writers today.  Whether you know Lear first as a limericist or as an artist, you will be surprised at how the two are fused in his life. Robert McCracken Peck’s thorough research puts Lear in the context of 19th Century London’s burgeoning scientific and publishing worlds and sets Lear’s distinctive place among the great painters of birds and animals those worlds together made possible.
Roger F. Pasquier, author of Masterpieces of Bird Art and Painting Central Park

The first comprehensive account of one of the greatest of all natural history illustrators, Peck’s splendid book throws new light on the seminal importance of Lear’s early work, and its lasting influence on his later life, both in landscape painting and nonsense making.
Colin Harrison, Senior Curator of European Art, Ashmolean Museum Oxford

Robert McCracken Peck, Curator of Art and Artifacts at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, is a writer, historian, naturalist, and intrepid explorer. The author of numerous books and articles, Peck has received honors from the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Explorers Club for his contributions to exploration and natural history.