A Christmas Robin from John Gould’s “Birds of Great Britain”


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”.

2 responses to “A Christmas Robin from John Gould’s “Birds of Great Britain”

  1. What beautiful images! And the thought of hand colouring so many thousands of illustrations is mind-blowing. Was there a team of colourists, or did John Gould do the work himself? Mrs Janet Peters Director of University Libraries and University Librarian, Information Services Cardiff University 40-41 Park Place Cardiff CF10 3BB t: 02920 879362 e: petersjm@cardiff.ac.uk

    • Gould had a number of collaborators (who didn’t always get the credit they deserved), including his wife and several talented young artists who would prepare the lithographs from Gould’s original sketches. The hand-colouring for the book was completed by a team of colourists working to a “pattern-plate” prepared by each artist and closely supervised by Gould.

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