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Birds of the World: the art of Elizabeth Gould

By Andrea Hart and Ann Datta

Prestel, 2023

Hbk, 248pp; 220 colour illustrations

ISBN 978-3-7913-7987-6; £55.00

Birdwatchers the world over are likely to be aware of John Gould through his outstanding publishing achievements during the 1800s: his mammoth books on the birds of Great Britain, Europe, Asia and Australia are amongst the most collectable (and expensive) items in the world’s most comprehensive libraries. However, the name of Elizabeth Gould may be unfamiliar to many. Although John Gould was a writer and illustrator, it was in fact his wife who was the main artist in several of his early works. This beautiful book reproduces more than 200 of the approximately 600 illustrations that Elizabeth created in her short life of just 37 years, and is the first publication to really put the spotlight on her art. 

It is perhaps tempting for some to think that John Gould chose not to give his wife the credit she was due, because her name was not on the title pages, but the truth is that only in recent years have illustrators been given the status they truly deserve. The Goulds were clearly a loving couple and a formidable team. When Elizabeth died, John was left to manage a large family and find several new artists who could match Elizabeth’s skill.

The structure of this book is to take Elizabeth’s art for each of five continents. Starting with Asia, there are 39 illustrations from A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains (self-published by John Gould in instalments between 1830 and 1832). As these come from her early career as an artist, they sometimes lack the more realistic contours that can be seen in her later works, but they are still stunning, and were well received by the subscribers to this work. For me, her Himalayan Monal Lophophorus impejanus is just outstanding. John and Elizabeth would often plan the image together and, based on sketches, Elizabeth would then etch the final version onto stone, which was then used to create lithographs – all of which would have to be hand-coloured by a team of colourists. The process was laborious, but the results were hugely impressive and on pages of imperial folio size (approximately 55 cm x 40 cm), which meant that the numerous hand-coloured plates were often large enough to show the birds at actual life-size.

Buoyed by their success, the Goulds then attracted subscribers for a new work that was issued in many parts between 1832 and 1837 as The Birds of Europe. We are given a selection of 53 illustrations by Elizabeth, including a stunning image of a Great Auk Pinguinus impennis, which at that time had not yet become extinct. The Goulds then went on to produce monographs of bird families, and the first of these was A Monograph of the Ramphastidae, or Family of Toucans, which appeared between 1833 and 1835. Here we have 18 illustrations that Elizabeth contributed and, for me, her image of a pair of Guianan Toucanets Selenidera piperivora is just perfect. By now her artistic accuracy had reached its peak and, three years later, a further monograph was produced, A Monograph of the Trogonidae, or Family of Trogons, of which, again, we have 18 examples of Elizabeth’s work. By far the most impressive has to be the Resplendent Quetzel Pharomachrus mocinno, with the male’s tail being so long as to require a special fold-out page in the original book. 

In 1838, the Goulds moved to Australia to carry out research for The Birds of Australia, a gigantic seven-volume work which appeared during 1840–48. They returned to England to start work on the book and Elizabeth completed 84 plates before her tragic death following the birth of their eighth child. Some 35 of these plates are reproduced here. There are too many great images for me to choose a favourite.

I would argue that the artists employed by John Gould contributed as much to his success as he did himself. The artwork within his books was what sold them – as indeed is the case today with any field guide. I wonder what Elizabeth would have thought about her original plates now changing hands for over £1,000 each, or 200 of her images being brought together in one volume 182 years after her death.

Keith Betton

Issue 2
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