The European robin (Erithacus rubecula), affectionately known as the robin redbreast for its distinctive colouring, has been strongly associated with Christmas since the mid-19th century. The most common explanation is that the postmen who delivered cards and presents in Victorian Britain wore scarlet uniforms and were nicknamed “robins” or “redbreasts” after the birds. The robin itself was eventually depicted on Christmas cards to represent the postman who delivered them, which is why the bird is so often shown holding an envelope or sitting on a postbox.
These illustrations come from our magnificent copy of John Gould’s Birds of Great Britain, published between 1861 and 1873. All 367 lithographs in this monumental five-volume work were hand-coloured; in his introduction to the book, Gould writes: “every sky with its varied tints and every feather of each bird were coloured by hand; and when it is considered that nearly two hundred and eighty thousand illustrations in the present work have been so treated, it will most likely cause some astonishment to those who give the subject a thought”.