Science history: The rise and rise of John Gould

John Gould, renowned ornithologist and author, largely self-taught, was at the head of tremendous team of dedicated scientists and artists.

In 2017 the State Library of New South Wales in Australia released a digital version of Gould’s seven-volume 1848 work, The Birds of Australia. Reporting for The Guardian on the achievement, reporter Calla Wahlquist notes a quirk in some of his descriptions of the creatures he so assiduously studied. Along with making note of many pertinent details, he also shares tips for cooking them and what amounts to a food critic’s review of how they taste.

Of the Platycercus flaviventris, or yellow-bellied parakeet, for example, Gould writes that they are especially good in pies, their flesh being “delicate, tender, very well-flavoured”.

Gould was born on September 14, 1804 in Lyme Regis, Dorset, England. His father was a gardener, and his son, without receiving much formal education, joined him in the trade. This spurred a lifelong interest in nature. He learned taxidermy at Windsor Castle, where his father had risen to become foreman of gardeners. At 23 he was appointed a taxidermist on the staff of the Zoological Society of London.

In 1829 he married Elizabeth Coxen, a talented artist, and they became a formidable team.

A year later, a collection of exotic bird skins from the Himalayas arrived at the Royal Society. Gould the taxidermist put them together, produced sketches, and his wife completed the images, which resulted in A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains (1831–32), the first of many volumes.

The five-volume Birds of Europe (1832–37) and Monograph of the Ramphastidae (Toucans, 1834) followed.

Writing for the National Library of Australia News in 2005, Matthew Stevens notes that “the greatest surprise for anyone who starts exploring the life and works of John Gould is the realisation that Gould was not solely responsible for the illustrations in his books.

“When faced with an original Gould sketch, some viewers are shocked by the rudimentary nature of the workmanship. Gould quite readily admitted that he only made sketches, to be properly finished by his artists and then copied onto a lithographic stone for printing.”

Stevens says Gould’s sketches capture “the essence” of the birds, and he also had a hand in correcting watercolour versions of the images and lithographic test plates.

In 1840, after spending two years Down Under, Gould began publishing what the Australian Dictionary of Biography calls undoubtedly “the greatest” of his 18 main works, The Birds of Australia, which was completed in 1848 in seven volumes.

Many of the drawings were by Elizabeth, but she died in 1841 and other artists were employed to complete the work.

Stevens, who worked on John Gould Inc, the Australian Museum’s exhibition celebrating the 2004 bicentenary of his birth, says he was surprised to find the “countless examples of sheer sweat, hardship and personal sacrifice made by those who contributed to the works published under the Gould name”.

“It soon became evident that this extraordinary enterprise, although inspired by the drive, ambition and talent of one man, relied heavily on the scientific and artistic skills of the many people who worked for him.”

He is recognised today as the father of Australian ornithology, and is honoured in the name of a national bird-study organisation, the Gould League. He died on February 3, 1881.

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