Edward Lear was born in North London, on May 12, 1812. He was the twentieth of twenty-one children of Ann Clark Skerrett and Jeremiah Lear.
Lear was a near sighted and asthmatic boy. At the age of five or six years he also developed a relatively mild case of epilepsy which he referred to as "the demon". At about this time Lear’s mother handed Edward over to his eldest sister Ann. Ann was kind and good humored, but Lear felt the rejection of his mother, and from as early as seven Lear began to experience a depression he came to call "the morbids".
Perhaps because of fragile health, Lear only had a brief period at school. Ann, and his second sister, Sarah, taught him to read and write, to play the piano, and to draw and paint.
In his late teens Lear began to earn a living teaching drawing and selling his own work. He began to specialize in drawing birds, so he applied to the Gardens of the Zoological Society of London for permission to make drawings of their parrots. Lear’s illustrations were immediately compared to the work of John Audubon, and the twenty-year old Lear was made an Associate of the Linnean Society (two parrots now bear Lear’s name: Lapochroa leari, Lear’s cockatoo, and Anodorhynchus leari, Lear’s macaw).
In 1832 Lord Stanley, the president of the Zoological Society, invited Lear to his estate of Knowsley to do drawings of the animals in his private collection. While there Lear developed reputation for being witty, which led the Earl to invite him to dine with the family and their guests instead of the with the hired help. This brought Lear into contact with influential people whose friendship and support changed the course of his life.
The close work at Knowsley took a toll on Lear’s eyesight, and the climate aggravated his asthma and bronchitis. A Ireland in 1835 convinced Lear that landscape painting would be a healthier, and potentially more lucrative, career. In 1837 he left England for Rome. In the summer of 1846, during a visit to England, he was briefly drawing master to Queen Victoria, who summoned him after seeing his first volume of Illustrated Excursions in Italy, published in April of that year.
In 1846 Lear also published at his own expense the limericks he had written while at Knowsley under the title of A Book of Nonsense.
In his 1861 Book of Nonsense Lear included forty-three new limericks. He published a further hundred in More Nonsense 1871. He also produced nonsense prose, nonsensical alphabets, and occasional nonsense parodies like nonsense cookery and nonsense botany.
Lear's influence can be seen in the works of James Thurber and Edward Gorey, as well as in Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
Lear's cat Foss was introduced to the household as a kitten in 1873. He was a tabby cat, and had a shortened tail because a superstitious servant cut it off thinking this would stop the cat from straying. Foss was reportedly not an attractive cat, but he became well known because of the cartoons drawn by Lear.
Mr. Lear loved the cat so much that when he moved to a different home he instructed the architects to design it as an exact replica of his previous one. This was supposedly to make the move to the new place as easy as possible for Foss.
Foss died in November of 1887, and was buried under a large tombstone in Mr. Lear's Italian garden. Lear himself died only two months later, in January of 1888.