Daily Archives: July 31, 2012

John Gould’s hummingbirds – a Victorian obsession

John Gould (1804-1881) was a prolific bird artist and the most celebrated ornithologist of Victorian Britain. He published more than forty folio volumes on birds of the world, beautifully illustrated with nearly 3,000 hand-coloured lithographic plates.

Considered a pioneer of ornithology, Gould’s identification of the birds now known as “Darwin’s finches” helped Charles Darwin develop his theory of evolution by natural selection and Gould’s work is referenced in On the Origin of Species. We are very lucky to have in the Cardiff Rare Books Collection complete sets of some of John Gould’s greatest works, including The Birds of Europe, The Birds of Great Britain, and Gould’s masterpiece, A Monograph of the Trochilidae, or Family of Humming-birds.

Hummingbirds were Gould’s great obsession and he accumulated a collection of 320 species, which he exhibited during the Great Exhibition of 1851. Victorians were greatly attracted to the fleeting beauty of the tiny creatures and Gould’s display of stuffed birds at the Regents Park Zoological Gardens attracted more than 75,000 visitors, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, netting the naturalist a substantial profit. As the Queen later noted in her journal, “It is impossible to imagine anything so lovely as these little Humming Birds.”

Sadly, the exhibition sparked a craze for the colourful, iridescent hummingbird plumage to adorn ladies’ hats and clothes and millions of birds fell victim to Victorian fashion over the next fifty years. In 1888, 12,000 hummingbird skins from Central and South America were reportedly sold in a single auction; the total for that year in London alone may have exceeded 400,000. Fortunately, by the early 20th century organisations such  as the Audubon Society and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had succeeded in switching the emphasis from exploitation to conservation.

Gould’s Humming-birds took 12 years to produce and was issued from 1849 to 1861; the monumental five-volume work was illustrated with 360 plates produced by Gould with the assistance of H.C. Richter and William Hart. Gould also patented a process of applying gold or silver leaf, transparent oils and washes of colour to mimic the shimmering quality of hummingbird feathers, and the birds are depicted throughout with indigenous flowers and detailed backgrounds.

Despite his passion for hummingbirds, Gould did not see a living specimen until 1857 when he  travelled with his son Charles to visit the United States. On 21 May in Bartram’s Gardens, Philadelphia, and to his great and lasting delight, John Gould finally witnessed his first live hummingbird.