The Owl, The Pussycat and the young artist whose stay near Liverpool created a lyrical legend

The Owl and The Pussycat is etched into my childhood memories.

The conjured images of the pair sailing away on their adventure, stocked up with honey and plenty of money, are as clear for me today as they were when I was young.

It wasn't until I heard that the characters will be the subject of a public art trail next year that I realised the nursery rhyme was written here in the north west.

The story of how it came about is fascinating.

The Owl and The Pussycat in print

Edward Lear was actually an artist who during his early years worked at the then new London Zoo.

The 13th Earl of Derby, a great natural historian and president of the zoo, liked his work and invited the shy young man to paint his menagerie at Knowsley Hall outside Liverpool.

For almost seven years, Lear lived below stairs under the control of the butler and housekeeper.

Soon the family realised the children of the house were becoming enchanted with the artist and his nonsense rhymes. Amongst them, The Owl and The Pussycat.

Lord & Lady Derby with a copy of the nonsense poem

Lear was soon brought upstairs to entertain the adults with after dinner songs and soirees.

He continued to paint animals, including owls and cats, turning out over 100 drawings and watercolours at the rate of more than one a month.

Curator Dr Stephen Lloyd tells Andy Bonner about Lear's legacy in the Derby Collection

The task was to give Lear eye strain and in 1837 he asked his patrons if they would pay for him to study in Italy to enable him to fulfil his dream to become a landscape painter.

He stayed for 10 years.

His first illustrated travel book was published in 1846, the same year that The Owl and The Pussycat would first appear in print.

The nonsense rhymes were dedicated to the grandchildren and great grandchildren at Knowsley Hall and the poem has been a family favourite ever since.

The art trail, featuring 30 two-metre high pairings of the owl and pussycat, will run throughout public spaces in Knowsley in Summer 2022 as part of the area's year as Liverpool City Region Borough of Culture.

Artists, professional and amateur, are invited to submit designs to appear on the characters.

They are asked to take inspiration from Knowsley – its people, history and other characteristics.