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The Grand Canal with Santa Maria Della Salute, Venice, Italy, 1865 by Edward Lear

What Marianne North learned from Edward Lear

In the autumn of 1852, Edward Lear, while painting a fig tree in the overgrown garden of the Hastings MP Frederick North, made a lifelong friendship with the MP’s daughters, which affects lives to this day. Artist and writer Maureen Connett tells us more about the lesser known artistic and musical talents of the writer, Edward Lear, best known for his limericks and nonsense poetry.

View of House in Hastings (Marianne House) by T Perkin 1893 Photo: The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Edward Lear was lodging in the gardener ‘s cottage of Lord North’s house in the Old London Road above the Old Town, Hastings when he met North’s two daughters: Catherine, who became a friend to him in his later years, and Marianne, famous for her paintings of flora.  You can see Marianne’s wonderful botanical studies in the specially designed gallery in Kew Gardens, painted on location from California and Brazil to the East Indies and New Zealand, no matter what the practical difficulties for a lady travelling the World in the nineteenth century.

Marianne remembered how he would drift into their sitting room at dusk, sit down at the piano and sing Tennyson’s songs for hours, composing as he went along and picking out the accompaniments by ear, putting the greatest expression and passion into the most sentimental words.


Nepenthes northiana by Marianne North

His approach to painting, the closest observation, meticulous attention to detail, and constant and dedicated hard work,  made a lasting impression and influenced the future course of Marianne’s life. His incessant travelling to find new places of interest and ever-changing vistas aroused her greatest admiration and later, she followed in his footsteps after the death of her father. She was one of several pupils of his, the most distinguished being the young Queen Victoria.

Edward Lear, view of Beachy Head 1862

Edward Lear had many famous friends and benefactors to whom he appealed constantly for congenial accommodation and financial support helping to fund his constant international travels.   They bought his paintings and were, in effect, his patrons. Judging by the education and entertainment he offered Lord North’s daughters, Lear offered something invaluable in return.

Edward Lear 1846 Pen and brown ink and wash – valley of the river Arun a couple of miles from Arundel

Lear’s sisters were his emotional anchor.  Sarah provided the all-important link with Sussex.  She had married and settled near Arundel and  Edward was a frequent visitor, turning up in a coach from London and after a comfortable night’s sleep and hearty breakfast, hurrying out to paint the river Arun and the lovely countryside around.

Ann Lear (Edward’s favourite sister) by Unknown artist. Watercolour and bodycolour on ivory, circa 1830s.

Ann was vital to his well-being and continued to mother him throughout his life.  She was influential in encouraging his studies in the London Zoo, in particular his paintings of parrots.  These are perhaps his most startlingly original studies, brilliantly coloured and strikingly novel in the way he captures the character and expressions of these most entertaining of birds. Lear was a pioneer in concentrating on a single species and drawing from live birds whenever possible.  Parrots were fashionable as pets, seen in many contemporary portraits, and their

Edward Lear – Red and Yellow Macaw 1830

shimmering feathers adorning the headdresses of society hostesses.  Lear’s study of the great red and yellow macaw turning its head with a sharp, wary glance astonished and delighted its audience. A huge Macaw is now looking me in the face as much as to say – Finish me, ‘he groaned in a letter to a friend.

Sir David Attenborough regards Edward Lear as the finest ornithological draughtsman ever and his superb landscapes are in royal and national collections worldwide.  At his death, he left more than three hundred oil paintings and over ten thousand watercolours. He is now receiving the recognition he deserves  as an artist of ‘versatile and original genius’

Learn more about Edward Lear   Lear woz ‘ere!  So much so, that here is a Literary Festival about his works in St Leonards on Sea in 2021.

The Pelican Chorus

Great White Pelican – painting by Edward Lear

King and Queen of the Pelicans we;
No other Birds so grand we see!
None but we have feet like fins!
With lovely leathery throats and chins!
Ploffskin, Pluffskin, Pelican jee!
We think no Birds so happy as we!
Plumpskin, Ploshkin, Pelican jill!
We think so then, and we thought so still!

On the Coast of Coromandel
Where the early pumpkins blow,
In the middle of the woods
Lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.
Two old chairs, and half a candle,
One old jug without a handle–
These were all his worldly goods,
In the middle of the woods,
These were all his worldly goods,
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo,
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy Bo.

The Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo meets the woman of his dreams, but she is already betrothed to another, so they can only be friends. This pair of star-cross’d lovers then part at the lady’s insistence, and the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo rides a turtle across the ocean (as you do). Well, what else is there to do when you’ve just had your marriage proposal rejected? The Dong with the Luminous Nose’.

When awful darkness and silence reign
Over the great Gromboolian plain,
Through the long, long wintry nights;
When the angry breakers roar
As they beat on the rocky shore;
When Storm-clouds brood on the towering heights
Of the Hills of the Chankly Bore …

Another story of lost love, this time involving the eponymous Dong, a creature with a long glow-in-the-dark nose (fashioned from tree-bark and a lamp), who falls in love with the Jumbly girl, only to be abandoned by her. Another classic Edward Lear poem that fuses absurd imagery with more than a tinge of melancholy.

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Posted 22:06 Friday, Aug 14, 2020 In: Hastings People


Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. Liz Strauss

    I was moved by this beautifully written description of North and Lears friendship.

    Comment by Liz Strauss — Saturday, Jan 16, 2021 @ 10:48

  2. Hastings Arts Forum

    A very interesting read ! I didn’t know he was so versatile and had lived such a well travelled life.

    Comment by Hastings Arts Forum — Thursday, Aug 27, 2020 @ 20:25

  3. Roger Balm

    A well-written and and thoroughly enjoyable description of an artist we deserve to know more about. I was unaware of the connections between Edward Lear and Marianne North so Maureen’s article provided me with a lot of new information. The well chosen illustrations were a real plus, also. More articles like this, please!

    Comment by Roger Balm — Friday, Aug 21, 2020 @ 11:23

  4. Kate Rosie

    What a fantastic write up! So much information about this highly talented man. It’s lovely to learn such incite into his life – especially with St.Leonards festival of ‘A Town Explores A Book’ soon to be celebrating his Nonsense Alphabets and Poems. Thank you for an entertaining and informative article.

    Comment by Kate Rosie — Wednesday, Aug 19, 2020 @ 15:55

  5. Erica

    Great article Maureen!
    Do you know Lear’s 1871 Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets is next year’s A Town Explores A Book chosen book?

    Comment by Erica — Saturday, Aug 15, 2020 @ 13:56

  6. Helen lea

    A really interesting story. I had no idea he was such a talented man.

    Comment by Helen lea — Saturday, Aug 15, 2020 @ 11:28

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