Tag Archives: ornithology

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”.

Eagle or dodo? A guide to identification

Possibly very few people in history have ever spotted a large bird of prey soaring majestically above the treetops and thought to themselves, “Is that an eagle or a dodo?”. However, for anyone who has difficulty telling these two magnificent birds apart we can now point to this helpful engraving from our copy of Buffon’s System of natural history (1791). Problem solved!


Illustrating the exotic: John Gould and Edward Lear’s Family of Toucans


These magnificent images are from our copy of John Gould’s Monograph of the Ramphastidae, or Family of Toucans, published in 1834. As you can see, the book contains some of Gould’s most remarkable illustrations, featuring 52 life-sized lithographed images of these exotic birds reproduced in vivid and vibrant colour.



Gould’s inspiration for Family of Toucans came while he was doing research for Birds of Europe and was invited to view a friend’s collection of toucan skins. The volume took several years to complete and many of the stunning lithographs in this first edition were drawn by Edward Lear, a young artist whom Gould discovered sketching in the Parrot House at London Zoo.



In total, Lear contributed illustrations to six of Gould’s works including Birds of Australia and Birds of Europe, but their professional partnership was neither a happy nor an equal one. As a ‘paid employee’, Lear’s exceptional work on the publications was rarely acknowledged by Gould, who even went so far as to remove Lear’s signatures from the second edition of Toucans.



Although John Gould may not have painted the final illustrations for which he took credit, they certainly could not have happened without him: he collected, sketched and described all the specimens, as well as acting as the agent, publisher and the distributor of the completed volumes. Family of Toucans was one of the earliest of Gould’s 18 monographs on ornithology and as with his later work on hummingbirds, Gould’s experience of these exotic creatures was based entirely on specimens in museums, with an occasional trip to aviaries around Europe – he never saw toucans in the wild.


Edward Lear continued to paint birds and landscapes throughout his life but is better known today for his nonsense poetry. Lear’s A book of nonsense, first published in 1846, helped popularise the limerick, and Nonsense songs (1871) introduced the world to his most famous work, The owl and the pussycat.



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.