The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea In a beautiful pea green boat...
The gravestone of Edward Lear (1812 - 1888) in an Italian cemetery reads simply 'Landscape Painter In Many Lands', and this echoed Lear's own view of his principal achievement. Posterity remembers him for inspired lunacy of his nonsense poetry, collected in 'A Book of Nonsense'.
Edward Lear was born on 12th May 1812, in Holloway, London, the 21st child of Ann and Jeremiah Lear. He was raised by his eldest sister, also named Ann, 21 years his senior. Ann doted on Lear and continued to mother him until her death, when he was almost 50 years of age. Due to the family’s failing financial fortune, at age four he and his sister had to leave the family home and set up house together. From the age of six he suffered frequent grand mal epileptic seizures, and bronchitis, asthma, and in later life, partial blindness.
In 1846 Lear publishedA Book of Nonsense, a volume of limericks that went through three editions and helped popularize the form. In 1865 The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipple-Popple was published, and in 1867 his most famous piece of nonsense, The Owl and the Pussycat, which he wrote for the children of his patron Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby. Many other works followed.
Lear’s nonsense books were quite popular during his lifetime, but a rumour circulated that “Edward Lear” was merely a pseudonym, and that the books’ true author was the man to whom he had dedicated the works, his patron the Earl of Derby.
Lear travelled widely throughout his life and eventually settled in Sanremo, on his beloved Mediterranean coast, in the 1870s, at a villa he named “Villa Tennyson.” The closest he came to marriage was two proposals, both to the same woman 46 years his junior, which were not accepted. For companions he relied instead on a circle of friends and correspondents, and especially, in later life, on his Suliot chef, Giorgis, a faithful friend and, as Lear complained, a thoroughly unsatisfactory chef.
After a long decline in his health, Lear died at his villa in 1888, of the heart disease from which he had suffered since at least 1870.