I am by nature a collector, but I can’t say I really care about having originals or first editions: I like having everything produced by Edward Lear, for example, but late editions of his books are all right with me, provided they are faithful to the originals. While I have first editions of the three later nonsense books, for instance, I have never thought of investing a small capital to obtain an early edition of the Book of Nonsense: these are things for libraries, and getting to see the 1855 edition at the National Art Library last March was instructive and a pleasure, but I really feel no drive to acquire a copy.
So I never owned a Lear original … until about a year ago when, unexpectedly, I won the picture above on eBay at an incredibly low price. Not fully convinced of my luck, I sent a scan to Vivien Noakes and she confirmed it was by Edward Lear: she had shown me a similar one in a scrapbook when I visited her. Hers was published in The Painter Edward Lear, p. 35, as part of “Miss Fraser’s Album.”
The two pictures are extremely similar, the cliffs in the background even appear to be the same, and they were probably part of a series featuring gaily-coloured birds against a tropical-island background. Lear probably drew them in the early 1830s According to Vivien, the pictures show the influence of Thomas Stothard’s illustrations for The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, but I think a stronger influence might have been George Cruikshank’s illustrations for the same book. Stothard’s wonderful engravings always foreground Robinson and set him in a rather indefinite environment, while Cruikshank tends to emphasize the landscape and his figures are much less defined and slightly caricatural. Lear, who never felt sure of his figures, only suggests their presence and does not really manage to integrate them in their surroundings. The birds, however, though very small, are gorgeous and jump out of the picture