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Book of the Month

July 2005

The Birds of Australia

John Gould

London: 1840-1869
Sp Coll n1-a.1-8

A landmark of Victorian ornithology, John Gould's The Birds of Australia originally appeared in 36 parts between 1840 and 1848. It is a massive work comprising 8 folio sized volumes that depict and describe all of the 681 Australian bird varieties then known, many of them recorded by Gould himself for the first time. The birds are illustrated by beautiful hand coloured lithographed plates.

Wedge-tailed Eagle
Vol. 1 (n1-a.1): plate 1
Known as 'the Bird Man', John Gould (1804-1881) was both an outstanding naturalist and a highly successful businessman. Prodigious and single minded, he produced 15 major works (totalling nearly 50 folio volumes in all) containing some 3000 colour plates; these describe birds from all the main continents except Africa. He additionally wrote over 300 scientific articles and several smaller books. All in all, as a writer in the 'heyday' of natural history, he made a huge contribution to nineteenth century ornithology.

Sordid Halcyon
Vol. 2 (n1-a.2): plate 23

The first plate of the work depicts the Wedge-tailed eagle. Gould praises its courage, power and rapacity, and notes that a specimen he killed weighed nine pounds and measured six feet eight inches from tip to tip. He also comments that it has a habit of attacking young kangaroos, and that breeders of sheep find it an 'enemy which commits extensive ravages among their lambs' with the consequence that they 'persecute it relentlessly'.
Gould spent most of childhood in Surrey. He received no formal education, but was keenly interested in wildlife from an early age. His father was a gardener and it seemed that he was destined to follow in his footsteps when, at the age of 14, he began as an apprentice at Kew. But after working for a short time at Ripley Castle in Yorkshire, in 1822 he moved to London and gave up gardening for taxidermy, a then increasingly lucrative trade. One of his most curious assignments was to stuff a giraffe for King George IV.


Nankeen Night Heron
Vol. 6 (n1-a.6): plate 63

Lyre Bird
Vol. 3 (n1-a.3): plate 14

In 1827 he became the Curator and Preserver of the newly formed Zoological Society. Here he would have dealt with many of the newly discovered species being sent to the Society by collectors around the world. During this period he met his wife, Elizabeth Coxen; then working as a governess, she was also a talented artist. Gould encouraged her to learn lithography and together they produced their first book on birds, A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains. Issued in parts between 1830 and 1832, this work comprised 80 colour plates of illustrations drawn by Elizabeth. The hundreds of birds carefully described and classified by Gould were based on a collection of skins received by the Zoological Society. Gould was undeterred when he could not find a publisher to risk any capital on the work, and simply published it himself. Produced at a time of burgeoning interest in ornithology, its success gave Gould the confidence to plan a much larger work, and in October 1831 he issued his prospectus for The Birds of Europe. A publishing phenomenon had been born.


Gould decided to work on Australian birds next. Although several books on this subject had already been produced, he felt that none of these were comprehensive. His inspiration lay in the many 'strange and unusual' specimens sent to him by his two brothers-in-law, Charles and Stephen Coxen, who had emigrated to Australia in the early 1830s; in 1837-38, he described some of these in a small publication entitled A synopsis of the birds of Australia, and the adjacent islands.

Australian Gannet
Vol. 7 (n1-a.7): plate 76


Perceiving that a much grander work could be viable, he embarked on the first two parts of his The Birds of Australia. However, it soon became clear that he did not have access to sufficient specimens; as he explains in the general preface to the work, 'it could not be executed in a manner that would be satisfactory to my own mind or commensurate with the exigencies of science; I therefore determined to proceed to Australia and personally investigate (so far as a stay of two years would allow) the habits and manners of its birds in a state of nature'.
Using the profits made on his previous books, he relinquished his post at the Zoological Society, and handed over the running of his taxidermist business and other administrative affairs to his secretary Edwin Prince. He withdrew the first two parts of the work already issued, on the understanding that they would be replaced later by revised parts. Not all of these 'cancelled' parts were returned, however, and these now form the rarest of Gould's works for collectors.


Gould set sail on May 16, 1838. He was accompanied by his wife, his eldest son Henry (aged 7), his nephew Henry Coxen, his assistant John Gilbert, and two servants. After a four month voyage, the party landed at Van Diemans Land (now Tasmania) on September 18. Gould and Gilbert went on to Australia early in the following year. Gould began his explorations from the home of his brothers-in-law at Yarrundi, carrying out field work in the Hunter River-Liverpool Ranges, travelling some 400 miles in to the interior. John Gilbert, meanwhile, was sent to Swan River, Perth. Between them they collected 800 specimens of birds, as well as nests, eggs and some 70 examples of quadrupeds. The expedition resulted in Gould discovering over 300 species; although many of these were later deemed to be subspecies, many of his bird names have survived to this day.


Supplement vol. (n1-a.8): plate 57

Satin Bower Bird
Vol. 4 (n1-a.4): plate 10

Gould was 'highly gratified' to be the first to record the extraordinary habits of Satin Bower-birds. An example of the unusual thatched 'bower' structures that they build is clearly shown here, in one of the few double-sized plates found in the work. Gould described it as their 'playing-ground or hall of assembly' but was unsure about its exact purpose. It was later identified as being an essential element of the male's courtship ritual.

In all, Gould was away for 27 months. Having returned to England in August 1840, the first of 36 parts of the new The Birds of Australia appeared on 1 December. Gould spent the next 8 years on the work, a new part being produced every three months until its conclusion in 1848. During the same period, he also published a volume on kangaroos and began work on the 3 volume Mammals of Australia. As well as the specimens Gould had gathered for himself, John Gilbert stayed on to explore the western and northern parts of the continent further, and although he returned to England in 1841, Gould found his services in the field so valuable that he sent him back.

Vol. 6 (n1-a.6): plate 1

The result was a monumental, beautiful and important scientific work. Gould's courage and determination in its achievement should not be underestimated. At that time, Australia was largely unchartered, only sparsely settled and overwhelmingly forbidding: its exploration was dangerous. In all, three men lost their lives in collecting specimens for Gould. Most tragically, perhaps, in 1845 John Gilbert was killed by Aborigines.

Warbling Grass-Parakeet
Vol. 5 (n1-a.6): plate 44

As well as discovering, naming and describing new species, Gould is credited with introducing the budgerigar to Britain. In his introduction, he specifically mentions the 'beautiful little warbling Grass Parakeet, which, prior to 1838, was so rare in the southern parts of Australia that only a single example had been sent to Europe'. During his explorations, he explains that the birds arrived on the Liverpool plains in vast numbers, flying in flocks of up to a hundred strong.  Describing these as 'the most animated, cheerful little creatures you can possibly imagine' (as well as commenting on how good  they are to eat), he managed to bring a live pair back to England. These birds soon became popular as pets. The name that we know them by today is a corrupted form of the Aboriginal 'Betcherrygah'.
While Gould's in-depth knowledge of his subject made this work a real scientific achievement, its enduring appeal has surely lain in its magnificent illustrations. Gould was not directly responsible for these himself, however, although he supervised their production closely. His talent lay in drawing rough sketches, having an uncanny eye for capturing the characteristics and differences of each species.

Black Swan
Vol. 7 (n1-a.7): plate 6

Striated Pardalote
Vol. 2 (n1-a.2): plate 38

The sketches were then used as guides by his artists in producing the plates. These were made by the process of lithography. After a painting had been made based on the preliminary sketch, this would be transferred in reverse on to stone and printed in a single colour. The actual printing was undertaken with 'minute accuracy' by the firm of Hullmandel and Walton. Each plate then had to be coloured by hand, following the scheme of the original painting. This colouring was executed entirely by the 'unwearied exertions' of Mr Bayfield. At this time, lithography was a fairly new art and Gould was perceptive in realising its potential to produce lifelike images.

Gould's Neomorpha
Vol. 4 (n1-a.4): plate 19

Beautiful Grass-Finch (close up)
Vol. 3 (n1-a.3): plate 89


Elizabeth Gould produced most of the lithographs for their early works. Tragically, she died of puerperal fever a year after their return from Australia, and only 84 of the plates in this work are attributed to her. Gould found another artist, Henry Constantine Richter, to interpret the drawings in order to finish the work. Richter went on to stay with him for 40 years and it is estimated that he was responsible for over 1600 of Gould's designs. Other artists he employed included Edward Lear, William Hart and Joseph Wolf.


The logistical and organisational skills required to produce all the parts on schedule were phenomenal. It is all the more astonishing to consider that Gould usually had more than one work in production at any one time. For this edition of 250 copies alone, 1500 plates had to be printed and hand coloured every month. Meanwhile, the text was printed separately by the firm of R. and J. E. Taylor. The prints and text then had to be assembled into folders for distribution to subscribers. The subscribers were forced to wait over eight years before they could bind their volumes - the titles, lists of plates and introduction (along with instructions to the binder) being delivered last of all. Gould's overall introduction philosophically accepts that there are probably more species to be found, and entices the reader with a plug for his next project on the birds of India.

Beautiful Grass-Finch
Vol. 3 (n1-a.3): plate 89

Australian Cassowary
Supplement vol. (n1-a.8): plate 70

Inevitably, this was an expensive product. The original 7 volume set cost 115. Glasgow University is listed in the first volume as being one of the original subscribers.

Ostensibly completed by 1848, the work was still not finished in its entirety. Between 1851 and 1869, further parts were produced to form a supplementary volume, in order to describe more newly discovered birds. In its introduction, Gould discusses the likelihood of there being more undiscovered species and even hints that he may produce a second supplementary volume; he says, 'if the blessing of health be continued to me, I trust I shall not be found wanting in energy or desire to do justice to the delineation and description of any novelties that may be discovered, it being as much a labour of love to be thus engaged now as when ardour and youth went hand in hand during my visit to the distant country one portion of whose natural productions I trust I have not in vain attempted to illustrate'.

He cites the discovery of a 'fine species of Cassowary in the rich colony of Queensland' as one of the highlights of the supplement.


Although Gould never published another volume of The Birds of Australia, he worked tirelessly up until his death on 3 February 1881. He left his final work, The Birds of New Guinea and the Adjacent Papuan Islands, incomplete. It was finished for him by his friend, Richard Bowdler Sharpe of the British Museum, who later went on to compile an analytical index to Gould's works. Somewhat notoriously, Gould's Australian specimens had been bought by the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia when the British Museum decided that it could not afford them. After Gould's death, however, the museum's Zoological Department paid 3000 for his remaining collection of 12,395 specimens, including 5378 valuable humming birds. The Birds of Australia is now widely acknowledged to be the greatest of his major works.

New Zealand Stilt
Vol. 6 (n1-a.6): plate 25

Jean Anker Bird books and bird art: an outline of the literary history and iconography of descriptive ornithology The Hague: 1979 Sp Coll RF 133;  R. Bowdler Sharpe An analytical index to the works of the late John Gould, F.R.S. London: 1893 Sp Coll RQ 508; National Library of Australia  Treasures from the National Library: John Gould's Birds of Australia (viewed on 21/6/2005); Maureen Lambourne John Gould - bird man Milton Keynes: 1987 Level 11 Main Lib Fine Arts C3380 LAMBO; Gordon C. Sauer John Gould, the bird man: a chronology and bibliography Melbourne: 1982 Level 5 Main Lib Zoology qA31.G6 1982-S



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Julie Gardham July 2005