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'Illustrations of the family of Psittacidae, or parrots : the greater part of them species hitherto unfigured' by Edward Lear.


One of the most requested must see books in the Rothschild Library is a work without text produced by a short-sighted, socially inept, depressive artist with failing health.  Someone we may know better as an author of nonsense poetry and a caricaturist. 


This month sees the bicentenary of the birth of Edward Lear so it seems appropriate to highlight his major work of natural history, the ‘Illustrations of the family Psittacidae or parrots’.


Lear was born 12th May 1812, the 20th child of 21 children, born to a prosperous family in London.  It appears that there was some sort of hiatus and the family became divided, although no details remain due to Lear destroying diaries from his youth and spreading stories of bankruptcy that cannot be substantiated!



Blue and yellow Macaw

Image reference: 008408


However, the young Edward Lear was cared for by his sister Ann, 22 years his senior, during his childhood and teenage years.  He spent only one year at school, and either taught himself or was taught by his sisters Ann and Sarah.  Both women were gifted artists so he learned to draw using objects from nature for his artwork.


From approximately 1828 he began to work as a zoological draughtsman, quite often on projects associated with the new zoological gardens in London.  In 1830 he conceived his plan to produce a great work of zoological illustration and applied to the zoo for permission to draw the parrots. Permission was granted and Lear used to work in the aviaries with the keeper, Gosse, holding the parrots while Lear measured and drew his subjects. 


He made many pencil sketches and notes on colours, drawing the parrots in many positions. Visitors began to notice him working and he was constantly irritated by them, occasionally drawing a caricature of the most annoying. The intention of the work was to draw the entire family of psittacidae which meant having to use parrots in private collections, such as those of Lord Stanley of Knowsley hall, and if all else failed using stuffed specimens supplied by John Gould (1804-1881), who worked at the Zoological Gardens as a taxidermist.


The first part of the work appeared in 1830 and was remarkeble for several reasons:


  • Large folio size - which became the norm afterwards
  • Working from living birds - stuffed specimens were the usual subjects
  • Lear produced his own lithographs - he worked closely with Hullmandell, one of the lithographic pioneers
  • The work was devoted to one Family of birds - rather than the wide ranging works of earlier authors


The intention was to produce 14 parts but eventually 42 plates were produced in 12 parts.  The whole family of psittacidae was not figured as the book was not a financial success even though it had some eminent subscribers.

New Image.JPG

Subscribers page


The book was an artistic and natural history success.  The day after publication of the first part, Lear was proposed as an Associate of the Linnean Society, he was just eighteen years old. One of his supporters was Thomas Bell (1792-1880) for whom he worked on the 'Monograph of the Testudinata' and 'A history of British Quadrupeds, including Cetacea'.


He also worked for John Gould, the producer of many folio works on birds.  Gould was an unscrupulous and ambitious businessman who used Lear to produce some fine plates but often did not acknowledge him as the artist.  Their best known collaboration being the 'Birds of Europe' for which Lear produced plates of the large and eccentric birds, probably best known for the owls.





Aegolius funereus, Tengmalm's owl

Image reference: 028000


Lear spent the happiest five years of his life at Knowsley Hall where he was working for Lord Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby (1775-1851).  Stanley was undertaking academic study of natural history and had amassed the largest private menagerie in the country.  He employed Lear to draw the animals for identification and classification purposes. Lear lived at Knowsley Hall and in the evening entertained the children with drawings and stories.  He was accepted in to family life and made many friends.

In 1837 Lear went to Rome.  His failing health and eyesight and tours to the Lake District and Ireland influenced his desire to take up landscape painting.  He was an intrpid traveller and wrote journals about his travels to such places as Greece, Albania, Italy and Corsica.  He lived near Rome for most of the rest of his life, and when he finally became too ill to work, he sank into depression, a feature of his earlier life.  He died on 19th January 1888 in Sanremo, Liguria, Italy.


As this is Lear's bicentenary there are many events taking place, for more information please see  Also you will find some of his works digitised on the Biodiversity Heritage Library



Written by Alison Harding, Librarian (Tring)


For more information about the Library & Archives please visit visit our


The Library catalogue is available online at Library Catalogue

If you wish to view these or any other items, please contact the library to arrange an appointment or 020 7942 5460





The behavior guide to African mammals :|bincluding hoofed mammals, carnivores, primates / Richard Despard Estes ; drawings by Daniel Otte ; foreword by E. O. Wilson.
Berkeley, Calif. London :University of California Press, 2012


Catalogue of Brazilian Porifera / Guilherme Muricy ... [et. al.]
Rio de Janeiro : Museu Nacional, 2011


Snakes of Western Queensland : a field guide / by Angus Emmott and Steve G. Wilson
Wilsonton : Desert Channels Queensland, 2009


Frogs of the Lake Eyre Basin : a field guide / Michael J. Tyler, Steve G. Wilson and Angus Emmott
Longreach : Desert Channels Queensland, 2011


Desert animals in the eastern Sahara : status, economic significance, and cultural reflection in antiquity ; proceedings of an interdisciplinary ACACIA workshop held at the University of Cologne, December 14-15, 2007 / edited by Heiko Riemer ... [et al.]
Köln : Heinrich-Barth-Institut, 2009.
Z 74A o DES


Animals in the blood : the Ken Smith story / Russell Tofts
Whittlesford : Bartlett Society, 2012
Z 96A o SMI


Snakes of China (Zhongguo she lei) / Zhao Ermi zhu
Hefei Shi : Anhui ke xue ji shu chu ban she, 2006
Z REPTILES 77 ZHA Vol.1 & 2




Blogging for nature / Mark Avery
[S.l. : Lulu Press], 2011
L 65B o AVE


Aquatic biodiversity in Northern Australia : patterns, threats and future / editor, B.J. Pusey
Darwin, N.T. : Charles Darwin University Press (CDU Press), 2011
L 10E q PUS


The European Antarctic: science and strategy in Scandinavia and the British Empire / Peder Roberts
New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2011
L 80 o EUR


The optics of life : a biologist's guide to light in nature / Sönke Johnsen
Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press, 2012
L 10 o JOH


Darwin's ghosts : in search of the first evolutionists / by Rebecca Stott
London : Bloomsbury, 2012
L 9B o STO





The mayflies of Europe (Ephemeroptera) / Ernst Bauernfeind & Tomáš Soldán
Ollerup : Apollo Books, 2012


Entomologiens historie i Norge : Norsk entomologisk forening 1904-2004 / Lauritz Sømme ; bilderedaktør Lars Ove Hansen
Oslo : Norsk entomologisk forening, 2004
E 3 o SOM


The insects of Borneo : including South-East and East Asia / Dennis S. Hill and Fatimah Abang
Kota Samarahan : Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, 2010
E 77A o HIL


The Carabus of Abkhazia, Caucasus (Coleoptera, Carabidae) : iconography, genital morphology, systematics, and faunistics / by Imre Retezár.
[Hungary] : I. Retezár, 2008


Fotoatlas der Zikaden Deutschlands = Photographic atlas of the planthoppers and leafhoppers of Germany / Gernot Kunz, Herbert Nickel, Rolf Niedringhaus
Scheessel : WABV Fründ, 2011


Agrilus of East Asia / Eduard Jendek, Vasily Grebennikov
Prague : Nakladatelství Jan Farka*c, 2011





Death of an ocean : a geological borders ballad / Euan Clarkson and Brian Upton
Edinburgh : Dunedin Academic Press, 2010
P 72Ab o CLA


Curiosités géologiques du Pays Bigouden / Sylvain Blais, Michel Ballèvre, Pierrick Graviou, Joël
Orléans : BRGM, 2011
P 72G o GRA


Curiosités géologiques du Trégor et du Goëlo / Pierrick Graviou ; Christophe Noblet
Orléans : BRGM editions, 2009
P 72G o GRA


Curiosités géologiques de Mayotte / Pierrick Graviou, Jean-Philippe Rançon avec la collaboration de Nicolas Hubert.
Mamoudzou, Mayotte : Editions du Baobab ; Orléans, France : BRGM Éditions, c2006
P 72G o GRA




Rock-forming minerals. Volume 5A, Non-silicates: oxides, hydroxides and sulphides / J.F.W. Bowles ... [et al.].
London : Geological Society, 2011
M 549(02) BOW


Biohydrometallurgical processes : a practical approach / [editors] Luis Gonzaga Santos Sobral, Débora Monteiro de Oliveira, Carlos Eduardo Gomes de Souza.
Rio de Janeiro : Centre for mineral technology, Ministry of science, technology and innovation, 2011
M 669 SOB



Ornithology (Tring)


Gyrfalcons and ptarmigan in a changing world : Proceedings of a conference held February 2001, Boise, Idaho / Richard T. Watson et al.
Boise, Idaho : Peregrine Fund, 2011


Gyrfalcons and ptarmigan in a changing world : Proceedings of a conference held February 2001, Boise, Idaho / Richard T. Watson et al.
Boise, Idaho : Peregrine Fund, 2011


Nicaragua Pacific Slope Birds / Robert Dean
Rainforest Publications, 2011


La alondra ricotí ("Chersophilus duponti") / por Francisco Suárez (editor).
[Dupont’s Lark]
Madrid : Organismo Autónomo Parques Nacionales, 2010.


Las alondras de España peninsular / Francisco Suárez, Israel Hervás y Jesús Herranz.
[The larks of peninsular Spain]
Madrid : Organismo Autónomo de Parques Nacionales, 2009.


A book of birds / Stephen Gill
Kanagawa, Japan : Super Labo, 2010.


The great penguin rescue : 40,000 penguins, a devastating oil spill, and the inspiring story of the world's largest animal rescue / Dyan deNapoli.
New York : Free Press, 2010.


Seabird genius : the story of L.E. Richdale, the royal albatross, and the yellow-eyed penguin / Neville Peat ; foreword by C.J.R. Robertson.
Dunedin, N.Z. : Otago University Press, 2011.


Systematics, morphology, and ecology of pigeons and doves (Aves; Columbidae) of the Mascarene Islands, with three new species. / Julian Pender Hume
Auckland, New Zealand : Magnolia Press, 2011.


Vivre avec l'aigle de Bonelli [Texte imprimé] / Rozen Morvan ; photographies de Frédéric Larrey et Thomas Roger.
[Saint-Claude-de-Diray] : Éd. Hesse, 2010.
ORNITHOLOGY 18(1F) MOR                    


Lisa Di Tommaso (Special Collections Librarian) showcased some of the Library's fantastic art collection, as part of the highly successful NHM Night Safari evening.