When Edward Lear received a letter from the British ornithologist William Swainson in November 1831, he must have opened it with great trepidation. The nineteen-year-old artist had recently sent Swainson a portfolio of hand-colored lithographs of parrots and was eagerly waiting to hear his reaction. What a thrill — and a relief — he must have felt in reading Swainson’s positive reply. “Yesterday I received with great pleasure the numbers of your beautiful work,” wrote Swainson, then one of England’s most knowledgeable and influential ornithologists. “To repeat my recorded opinion of it, as a whole, is unnecessary, but there are two plates which more especially deserve the highest praise; they are the New Holland Palaeornis [cockatiel], and the red and yellow Macaw [today the Scarlet Macaw]. The latter is in my estimation equal to any figure ever painted by [Jacques] Barraband or [John James] Audubon, for grace of design, perspective, or anatomical accuracy.” * Swainson concluded his effusive letter to Lear with a request for “a duplicate copy of each” of the plates he admired, explaining that “they will then be framed, as fit companions in my drawing-room to have at the side of a pair by my friend Audubon.”
Lear could not have dreamed of a more reaffirming endorsement of his speculative venture into the business of scientific publishing. Just ten months before, at his own expense and without the backing of any publishing house or academic institution, he had launched an ambitious plan to publish a monograph entitled Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots: The Greater Part of them Species Hitherto Unfigured (London: Edward Lear, 1832). His initial goal had been to publish a portfolio of fifty plates. In the end, after two years of ceaseless toil and enormous personal expense, he produced just 42, but the resulting publication is today considered one of the finest collection of bird paintings ever published.
Limited to just two hundred copies, Lear’s monograph on parrots is among the rarest and most desirable of the many published during the golden age of color plate books. A copy of his book and some of the paintings he made to create it, along with spectacular examples of other paintings made early in Lear’s life, before he became widely known and loved as a nonsense poet and landscape painter, are currently on view at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. “The Natural History of Edward Lear” exhibition commemorates the bicentennial of Lear’s birth in 1812. Come see the red, blue and yellow macaw image that so impressed William Swainson. It will take your breath away — and may even inspire you to write a letter of your own!
The exhibition is open daily except Sundays from 9 to 5 and runs through August 18.
This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.
[Thanks to Robert McCracken Peck for contributing this post. Peck, Senior Fellow at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia, served as guest curator for the Edward Lear exhibition at Houghton. His essay on the natural history paintings of Edward Lear is included in the current issue of the Harvard Library Bulletin (Vol. 22, nos. 1 and 2). A review of the Lear exhibition can be seen in the Harvard Gazette.]