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Edward Lear

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Edward Lear was born in Highgate, a suburb of London, the 20th child of his parents and was raised by his eldest sister, Ann, twenty-one years his senior. At the age of fifteen, he and his sister had to leave the family home and set up house together. He started work as a serious illustrator and his first publication, at the age of 19, was Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots in 1830. His paintings were well received and he was favourably compared with John James Audubon. Throughout his life he continued to paint seriously. He had a lifelong ambition to illustrate Alfred Tennyson’s poems; near the end of his life a volume with a small number of illustrations was published, but his vision for the work was never realised. Lear briefly gave drawing lessons to Queen Victoria, leading to some awkward incidents when he failed to observe proper court protocol.

He did not keep good health. From the age of six until the time of his death he suffered frequent grand mal epileptic seizures, as well as bronchitis, asthma, and in later life, partial blindness. Lear experienced his first epileptic fit while sitting in a tree. Lear felt lifelong guilt and shame for his epileptic condition. His adult diaries indicate that he always sensed the onset of a fit in time to remove himself from public view. How Lear was able to anticipate his fits is not known, but many people with epilepsy report a ringing in their ears or an “aura” before the onset of a fit.

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