BEST known for his nonsense poems and limericks, Edward Lear considered himself first and foremost a painter.

Now, as the bicentenary of his birth is about to be celebrated, two Oxford museums are staging events to mark the anniversary.

The Ashmolean Museum has one of the largest collections in the UK of the artist’s work, and from Thursday, September 20, it will stage a new exhibition entitled Edward Lear: 200 Years of Nature and Nonsense.

On display at the Beaumont Street venue will be 100 works of art from the Ashmolean’s own Lear collection, loans from the Bodleian Library and works from private collections, with many being shown in public for the first time.

Lear fans will be able to see oil paintings, manuscripts and illustrated books, with highlights including sketches of birds made during his travels around Greece, Italy and Egypt.

Senior curator for European Art Colin Harrison said: “Edward Lear was one of the most extraordinary figures in Victorian England.

“He was one of the greatest of all natural history illustrators, a highly original artist who travelled more widely and recorded the landscape more faithfully than almost any other.

“He was also an endearing writer whose experiments with words predate those of Lewis Carroll .”

There will be more than 30 loans from Oxford University libraries to bring together editions of the books Lear illustrated early in his career.

The exhibition, which runs until January 6, will also show sketches and self-portraits he gave to his friends, and a nonsense alphabet composed on June 22, 1862.

The Story Museum, in Pembroke Street, will focus on Lear’s nonsense poetry. There, former children’s laureate Michael Rosen will host poetry and music on Friday, September 21, from 6pm to 7.30pm.

Visitors may have spotted a ‘nonsense’ telephone kiosk, with a scene from one of Lear’s most famous poems The Owl and the Pussycat.

Museum spokesman Cath Nightingale said: “Until recently, passers-by could put their ear to the window and hear a recording of Michael reading Lear’s famous poem as well as one of their own.

“They were able to do this until vandals broke the door and made off with the museum’s MP3 player.

“Now they will be able to hear Michael recite verse in person.”

Museum staff member Rhiannon Jones said: “Children love nonsense poetry and we have found here that visitors young and old love to play with language.”


Tickets for the evening of nonsense and jazz at the museum cost £10, or £8 for concessions.

On Friday, September 21 and Saturday, September 22, Oxford University’s Jesus College will host the first international conference devoted to Edward Lear.


  • Edward Lear was born in Holloway, London, in 1812 and died in 1888.
  • Sociable and engaging, he was also an epileptic and prone to long fits of depresssion.
  • His earliest work was as an ornithological draughtsman, and between 1831 and 1837 he was a regular visitor to Knowsley Hall, where the 13th Earl of Derby kept one of the largest menageries in Europe.
  • When he was at Knowsley, he began to invent nonsense rhymes and drawings to amuse Lord Derby’s children. These were first gathered in A Book of Nonsense, published in 1846, but it was not until the third edition of 1862 that the verses became widely popular.