The Enduring Appeal of John Gould Birds

Nineteenth century British publisher, John Gould, is best remembered for his exquisite folios of birds and mammals. He published 21 titles during his lifetime, including 15 folio sets consisting of 49 volumes – and a total of 2999 unique plates. Among his work is the enduringly popular The Birds of Australia, comprising seven volumes released in stages between 1840 & 1848.

A photo of nineteenth century British publisher John Gould, notable for his volumes of bird illustrations | Image in public domain

John Gould. Studio photograph, 1860s.

Discovering John Gould

Born in Dorset in 1804, John Gould developed an interest in natural history at age 14, whilst an apprentice to the head gardener at Kew. He moved to London in 1824 & began a career as a taxidermist, achieving such success that his services were soon in demand by King George IV.

By 1838, Gould was a curator & taxidermist at the Museum of the Zoological Society of London – whilst also a private taxidermist & advisor to leading institutions.

Gould aspired to be widely known as a naturalist – and his ambition lay in ornithological publishing. While his first work – A Century of Birds of the Himalaya Mountains, completed in 1832 – game him the success he needed to continue publishing, it was The Birds of Australia, that would really cement his reputation among the leading naturalists of the day.

Elizabeth Gould

Artistic Talent & Scientific Process

While Gould’s name is synonymous with the exquisite illustrations that make up his published works, his was not the sole creator. Gould had an extraordinary scientific knowledge of birds & the business acumen needed to achieve global publishing success.

To create the illustrations, he gathered together a talented team of artists, lithographers and colourists. These included Edward Lear, H.C. Richter, William Hart, Joseph Wolf – and most notably, Elizabeth Gould.

John Gould had married Elizabeth Coxen in 1829, a women of considerable artistic talent. Like the rest of the artists involved, she produced a great number of drawings, and became skilled in lithography, a relatively new technique for book illustration in England in the 1830’s.

The State Library of NSW explains that all of Gould’s published works – including The Birds of Australia – were printed using lithography. Gould’s first provided rough sketches, and the artists then created the drawings and watercolours which were copied onto lithographic stones for printing. After the required numbers of prints were made, the stones were wiped clean or destroyed to ensure the exclusivity of the prints. Gould oversaw the entire process.

GOULD, John. Leach's Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus Leachii)

Gould’s Birds of Australia

As Tory Page, Theodore Bruce Book & Print Specialist observes, it was Elizabeth’s family who planted the seeds for Birds of Australia.

“Elizabeth’s two brothers, Charles & Stephen Coxen, had emigrated to Australia and settled in the Hunter  Valley region, and they had been sending birds back to John Gould. These birds caught Gould’s imagination and with his dissatisfaction at not using live birds, he decided to come to Australia in order to draw & collect material.

“Elizabeth accompanied him on his two year expedition at some personal cost, leaving three of their children behind in her mother’s care. The Gould’s had a great partnership, with Elizabeth supplying the artistic talent and John the scientific knowledge and business acumen.”

John and Elizabeth sailed for Australia with their party in May 1838. They spent the next two years travelling through the country, gathering more than 800 specimens. It was just one stage in the massive undertaking that would result in The Birds of Australia, the first comprehensive work on Australian ornithology.

Issued in parts between 1840 and 1848, it contained 680 hand-coloured plates – including 328 previously unknown species – and descriptions from the two-year expedition to Australia.

Elizabeth died in 1841, a year after returning to London. John dedicated one of the prints, Gouldian Finch, to his wife’s memory.

Pictured: GOULD, John. Leach’s Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus Leachii)

GOULD, John. Nocturnal Ground-Parrakeet (Geopsittacus Occidentalis)The Appeal of Goulds Birds

The appeal of John Goulds birds lies with the their place in the history of ornithology, the beauty of the illustrations, and their rarity.

The John Gould birds that you see at auction today are 19th century originals. As the State Library of NSW notes, the cost of producing the prints was offset by subscription for a fee of £115 (2017: £9,529.00 / AUD$16,885.00). This sizable cost meant that ownership was exclusive to just a few hundred of the wealthiest individuals and institutions in England, Australia and Europe. This also accounts for the rarity of this landmark publication to this day.

Pictured: GOULD, John. Nocturnal Ground-Parrakeet (Geopsittacus Occidentalis)

GOULD, John. Blue-Cheeked Parrakeet (Platycercus Cyanogenys)

Birds of Australia at Auction

Tory observes that prices for Gould’s Birds at auction have ebbed and flowed – and it is possible to pick up beautiful examples at auction for good prices. Certain examples do tend to be more sought after.

“Gould’s cockatoos and parakeets have maintained their appeal and value over years, and they are amongst the most beautiful and striking of all his birds.”

She adds that Elizabeth Gould illustrations are also highly prized. “Her contribution and sacrifices were immense, the plates that bear her name are her lasting legacy.”

Theodore Bruce currently has a selection of John Gould Birds on offer in our Books | Military, Art, Gould’s Birds & Ephemera auction.

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