Thursday, March 18, 2010

"The Bird Man", a splendid biography on John Gould

This lively account of the life and work of John Gould,'The Bird Man; The Extraordinary Story of John Gould' by Isabella Tree, reveals a fascinating story of how John Gould, a self taught man of modest origins, became the most celebrated ornithologist of Victorian Britain, producing over forty folio volumes of scientifically revolutionary and aesthetically magnificent ornithological works containing more than 3,000 hand colored plates.

Tree vividly portrays Gould as a shrewd business man fiercely devoted to the pursuit of ornithological study and the financial success of his vast and celebrated publications. She sheds light on the inner workings of what she coins, ‘the Gould Machine’, Gould’s massively successful publishing ventures made up of illustrators, colorists and specimen collectors.

Tree suggests that Gould may have been a less than desirable colleague and employer as she recounts one example after the next of the many people employed by, yet not acknowledged by Gould - several of which, including his wife, Elizabeth Gould, who illustrated many of the plates in Gould’s works, lost their lives under his seemingly never tiring demands. She contrasts the romantic artist, Edward Lear, who illustrated many of the magnificent plates for ‘The Birds of Europe’ and ‘A Monograph of the Ramphastidae, or Family of Toucans’ with the pragmatic and rigid Gould who failed to acknowledge Lear’s artistic brilliance that transformed Gould’s somewhat stiff and rigid scientific depictions of birds into expressive work of art. Tree inserts an image of Lear's plate of the Culminated Toucan '(Ramphastos cumenatus), which we at Arader Galleries have in our outstanding collection of exceptionally fine lithographs from the works of John Gould, as an example of Lear's dynamic and expressive artistic abilities.

Tree devotes a large portion of the book to Gould’s travels in Australia. In September 1838, John Gould and his wife, Elizabeth arrived in Van Diemen’s land (Tasmania) and spent the following 18 months exploring Tasmania and the adjacent islands, South Australia, and new South Wales. Upon the discovery that she was pregnant, Elizabeth resolved to remain in Tasmania while her husband set about discovering the birds of Australia’s interior. She was to stay with the Governor of Tasmania, John Franklin, during this time and became fast friends with the Governor’s wife. Thus, it was that Captain Franklin became a subscriber to ‘The Birds of Australia. At its time of publication the birds of this region were essentially unknown to a European audience and as Gould himself admitted in the preface to the book, “the field was comparatively a new one”.

‘The Birds of Australia is John Gould’s largest and most important work. Because he himself spent so much time in the field making his own observations, the text that accompanies the illustrations is by far the most accurate and detailed of all his works. Moreover, it is such a complete study that very few additions have ever been made to the study of Australian ornithology.

We, at Arader Galleries are proud to have a complete set of John Gould’s monumental ‘Birds of Australia including many birds that were first described by Gould such as this stunning and vibrant depiction of Platycerus semitorquatus.

A letter accompanying our complete set, dated April 1877 and written by Henry Elliot, sheds light on the provenance of the present edition. He writes:

“This copy of Gould’s Birds of Australia belonged to Sir John Franklin to whom I was aide de camp, and in whose house, while Governor of Tasmania, Gould lived many months while making his Collection. I had myself made a collection of the Birds of Tasmania, and gave many of the specimens to Gould. After the death of Sir J. Franklin’s widow in 1876 this copy of the work was given to me by his niece . . .”

The letter is inserted into the first volume of the book and indeed, Gould acknowledges the assistance of both Elliot and Franklin in his preface.

Isabella Tree’s biography, ‘The Bird Man’, eloquently recounts the amazing and astonishing life and work of John Gould peppered with excerpts from Gould’s correspondences with such influential people such as Sir William Jardine, members of the Zoological Society, and Charles Darwin, who Gould aided in his theory of natural selection. I encourage all that are interested in learning more about one of the most influential pioneers of ornithological study and illustration, John Gould, to read Tree’s biography and to visit our gallery to view our impressive and complete set of Gould’s‘The Birds of Australia’ and our large selection of exquisite hand colored lithographs from many of his other monumental works such as‘The Birds of Europe’, ‘A Monograph on the Trochilidae’, ‘The Birds of Asia’, and ‘The Birds of New Guinea and the Adjacent Papuan Islands’.

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