Edward Lear and Queen Victoria

In 1980, Marina Warner published an article on Queen Victoria’s art, which included a short examination of what Edward Lear taught her. Here is the relevant section:

Under Albert’s bracing influence, Victoria wanted to improve, and as soon as the brand new Osborne House could accomodate guests, artists were invited down to stay to coach the Queen.

Edward Lear (1812-1888) was known to Victoria and Albert through the handsome topographical accounts he had published of his travels through the little known rural campagna of the Abruzzi in Italy. Victoria invited him to Osborne in July 1846, a few months after the appearance of the two-volume illustrated Excursions in Italy. On 17th July, Victoria reported, ‘Gave Vicky her religious lesson, as most days, and wrote and drew. Had another lesson with Mr. Lear, who much praised my 2nd copy. Later in the afternoon I went out and saw a beautiful sketche he had done of the new house.’


The Italianate turret which was to become the trademark of nineteenth-century holiday villas from the Isle of Wight to San Francisco was designed by the master builder Thomas Cabitt in collaboration with Prince Albert. Victoria’s work is much more slapdash by comparison, but it show the clear improvement that Lear achieved. He concentrated her eye on detail, showed her how to compose a picture with eloquence and sweep, and above all, made her understand that not everything in a scene should be represented, but that the right emphasis at the right moment is the key. He also introduced her to the subtle combination of ink and wash, which she began to use to effect later, as in the study of Waterford harbour in 1849 (figure 7).
Lear only taught the Queen for three weeks; sadly, we do not know how the Nonsense Songs writer found his Queen, nor why their encounter never repeated. About three years after Leat’s visit, another skilful water-colourist was summoned to attend her. William Leighton Leitch (1804-1883) became Victoria’s teacher, and the teacher of her children for over twenty years, until the excruciating migraines which tormented him forced him to retire.

Warner, Marina. “Queen Victoria as an Artist: From Her Sketchbooks in the Royal Collection.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 128.5287 (1980): 421-36. 427-428.


Of course, it is not true that we do not know “how the Nonsense Songs writer found his Queen,” as the episode is discussed in all the Lear biographies. Peter Levi (Edward Lear: A Biography. New York – London: Scribner, 1995. 85) suggests that the reason why the encounter was never repeated was the fact that he did not live permanently in England.

Vivien Noakes even quotes from “an edited transcript of Queen Victoria’s diary preserved at the Royal Archives in Widsor:”

15 July 1846. Osborne. Had a drawing lesson with Mr Lear, who sketched before me and teaches remarkably well, in landscape painting in water colours…

16 July 1846. Osborne. Copied one of Mr Lear’s drawings and had my lesson downstairs, with him. He was very pleased with my drawing and very encouraging about it…

17 July 1846. Osborne. I had another lesson with Mr Lear, who much praised my 2nd copy. Later in the afternoon I went out and saw a beautiful sketch he has done of the new house…

18 July 1846. Osborne. After luncheon had a drawing lesson, and am, I hope, improving…

A bad scan of "The Queen's sketch made under Lear's tuition when Osborne was half built," from P. Levi's Edward Lear.

A bad scan of “The Queen’s sketch made under Lear’s tuition when Osborne was half built,” from P. Levi’s Edward Lear.

Lear’s impressions are then reported:

Lear wrote down the details of his stay at Osborne, but all that has survived is one memory that he recalled after the Prince’s death in 1861: ‘Prince Albert showed me all the model of the House, (then being built only,) & particularly a Terrace, saying ― “This is what I like to think of ― because when we are old, we shall hope to walk up & down this Terrace with our children grown up into men & women.”‘

At the end of July Queen Victoria returned to London and the lessons were resumed in Buckingham Palace. It was probably here that two embarassing incidents occurred that Lear like to recall. He was accustomed now to mixisng with earls and viscounts, but he had no experience of the finer points of Court etiquette ― though he did know that he enjoyed standin on the rug in front of the fire warming his coat-tails. Each time he took up this position facing the Queen, the attendant Lord-in-Waiting invited him to see something on the far side of the room. The charade was repeated several times and no one explained what was going on. It was only later that Lear realised that a subject must not stand with his back to the fire in the presence of monarchs.

But Queen Victoria had apparently taken a liking to her drawing master and she decided to show him some of  her bijou treasures, which were kept in display cases. Lear was delighted with what he saw and exclaimed exuberantly: ‘Oh! how did you get all those beautiful things?’ Calmly Her Majesty replied, ‘I inherited them, Mr Lear.’

Noakes, Vivien. Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer. Rev. and enl. ed. Stroud: Sutton, 2004. 61-62.

The first episode, which sounds more likely, is part of a letter to Chichester Fortescue in Letters of Edward Lear, p. 214, but the manuscript, as she notes, does not have the passage quoted by Noakes. The two other stories were probably much embellished by Lear while telling them, and are to be found in Lady Strachey’s Introduction to the Letters. So, perhaps Warner is not wrong when she says we do not have Edward Lear’s direct testimony of his lessons with Victoria.

Both Queen Victoria’s surviving sketches made under the supervision of Edward Lear and Lear’s own drawing of Osborne can be seen in the Royal Academy of Arts catalogue, pp. 159-160.

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