With the obsession of a collector and an eye for artistic talent, John Gould succeeded in creating one of the most recognisable and long-lasting brand names in natural history.
Who was John Gould?
John Gould (1804-1881) was a businessman, publisher, and obsessive bird collector with an eye for a talented artist. He displayed his entrepreneurial skills from a young age while an apprentice in the royal gardens at Windsor, where, by the age of 14, he was selling stuffed birds to the sons of the aristocracy at Eton College. By the time he was 21 he had set up his own taxidermy business in London.
Gould is best remembered for his folio volumes of superb colour-plate illustrations of birds. In all, 2999 unique images were produced for these publications, many were the first illustrations of previously unknown species. It is estimated that over half a million individual hand-coloured plates were produced under the Gould name. This extraordinary output was the result of Gould's drive and business acumen as well as an ability to develop a strong international group of specimen collectors, artists and administrative agents.
It is an irony that a man who never finished a picture is remembered as one of the most significant bird artists of the Victorian age. More skilled as an entrepreneur than as an artist, Gould relied on his group of dedicated artists, lithographers and colourers to translate his preparatory sketches into finished illustrations. Yet during his lifetime and beyond, Gould has often been represented as the sole creator of the thousands of plates published in his books.
The main artists and lithographers who worked with Gould included his wife, Elizabeth; Edward Lear - now better known for his limericks and nursery rhymes; the great natural history artist, Josef Wolf; and Gould's long-term employees Henry Constantine Richter and William Matthew Hart. A number of these artists are considered the finest practitioners of natural history art in the 19th century.
Gould visited the Australian Museum in 1839 and maintained an ongoing relationship with the institution on his return to England. Its curators purchased the bulk of his publications for the Museum's collection, which are still held in the Australian Museum Research Library today.
The late Alan McEvey, a world expert on Gould's art says:
It is not easy to define the style of a Gould plate and it was, in fact, not a static but a changing one. The later works, for example The Birds of Asia and The Birds of Great Britain, show a confident elaboration of setting that was earlier lacking. Gould plates represent a varied appeal; a bold and colourful array of parrots for example, or the exotic richness of the trogons, and the magnificence of the humming birds, or, in gentler terms, the subdued harmonies of the waders. Added to these are the finer distinctions of style ranging from the early and relatively short-lived delicacy of Elizabeth Gould's hand and the skill of Edward Lear, to the expertise of Richter and Hart.
John Gould's early years
John Gould was born at Lyme Regis in Dorset on 14 September 1804. His early years there and at Stoke Hill near Surrey gave him the opportunity to develop an interest in natural history.
At the age of 14, he took up his father's trade and was apprenticed to the head gardener at Kew. He was a keen amateur ornithologist, and became proficient at egg blowing and taxidermy, selling his specimens to the 'Boys' at Eton. After a period working in the gardens of Ripley Castle in Yorkshire, he returned, aged 20, to London where he abandoned gardening for the increasingly lucrative trade of taxidermy.
At the age of 21 he set up his own taxidermy business in London, and in the London Directory for 1832-4, he was listed as 'a bird and beast stuffer'. The following year he appeared in the directory as 'a naturalist'.
In 1828 Gould accepted the position of Curator and Preserver to the Museum of the Zoological Society of London, at a salary of £100 per annum. At the same time he continued his private taxidermy business, acted as advisor to national institutions and travelled widely in England and on the Continent, buying and selling specimens.
The King's Giraffe
John Gould was known for his skills in taxidermy in October 1829 when he was commissioned by King George IV to stuff his recently deceased pet giraffe.
The 25-year-old Gould had been in the professional taxidermy business for four years. The King's request gave Gould his first taste of publicity and a vision of the public's growing interest in natural history and the exotic.
George IV's obsession with his giraffe or 'cameleopard', as it was sometimes described, had been shared by some and ridiculed by others. A diplomatic gift from Mehemit Ali, Pasha of Egypt, the animal arrived in London on 11 August 1827. The giraffe had been one of three offered as gifts from Egypt. The first giraffe was sent to the King of France, the second to the Emperor of Austria, while the third was despatched to England.
Both the English and Austrian giraffes were dead within two years. The French animal was stronger than its counterparts and lived in Paris at the Jardin des Plantes (a Zoological Park) for sixteen years - an achievement of which the French enjoyed reminding the British.
Marriage to Elizabeth and rising ambition
The same year as his appointment to the Zoological Society, Gould met Elizabeth Coxen, a 24-year-old governess. The two began a courtship and were married on 5 January 1829 at St James Church in Piccadilly.
Although Gould had risen through the ranks at the Zoological Society to become Curator and Preserver to the Museum, his true ambition was to become a naturalist. John Gould didn’t receive the same level of education as many of the middle- and upper-class young men who were turning to the field of natural history – something he would remain self-conscious about into his later life – but he was curious, intelligent, and driven to succeed. Gould’s ambition lay in the world of ornithological publishing – if he could publish an illustrated work on birds previously undescribed in print, he could claim a place for himself amongst the preeminent naturalists of the day.
Gould was better prepared than most for such an undertaking; he had ready access to specimens and scientific contacts through his work at the Zoological Society. However, he was missing one key aptitude needed for the enterprise: John Gould’s artistic talent did not stretch far beyond basic preparatory sketches. Fortunately, Gould quickly realized that his new wife had an abundance of talent when it came to painting and drawing. Soon after their marriage, John Gould enlisted Elizabeth in creating drawings for his friends and colleagues.
Gould's first publications
In 1830, John Gould’s ambition crystallised after receiving a delivery of Himalayan bird skins at the Zoological Society, and he set to work publishing one of the first illustrated books on birds from the Indian subcontinent. He procured his friend and fellow Society member Nicholas Ayward Vigors to write the manuscript, and encouraged his wife Elizabeth to learn lithography in order to illustrate the work. Published in parts and completed in 1832, A Century of Birds of the Himalaya Mountains was the success that John Gould needed to establish his name in the ranks of ornithology.
Almost immediately, Gould launched into his next project: a massive five-volume work on European birds. Published over five years from 1832-1837, The Birds of Europe contained 448 lithographic plates. During this period Gould also published A Monograph of Toucans, a 34-plate work completed in 1835. Illustrations for both works were produced by Elizabeth Gould and the artist and nonsense poet Edward Lear, who worked with the Goulds for several years at the beginning of their publication ventures.
John and Elizabeth Gould in Australia
Recognising the lack of any comprehensive publication on The Birds of Australia, John Gould sailed for Australia in May 1838 to collect data. His travelling party included his wife Elizabeth, eldest son John Henry, and his collector, John Gilbert. Their three youngest children were left behind in the care of his mother-in-law.
During their stay, John and Elizabeth Gould were separated for extended periods of time and their experiences are documented in their letters. While John was out in the field in Tasmania, New South Wales and South Australia, a pregnant Elizabeth spent much of her time in Hobart preparing sketches and waiting for the birth of their son, Franklin Tasman. In August 1839, the Gould's travelled from Tasmania to New South Wales, visiting Sydney and Newcastle before basing themselves at Stephen Coxen's property at Yarrundi, near Scone.
Gould made several trips to Sydney throughout his time in Australia, each time staying with Australian Museum curator George Bennett. The two kept up a correspondence and Gould retained strong ties to the Australian Museum upon his return to England.
Gould collected 800 bird specimens, 70 quadrupeds and the nests and eggs of more than 70 species of birds and the skeletons of all the principal forms, making notes on them and their habitats. Once enough material had been collected to commence The Birds of Australia, Gould and his family departed Australia on 9 April 1840.
John Gould: books and illustrations
John Gould was an immensely successful publisher. Over the course of his lifetime he produced 21 titles. Discover a selection of his published works in digital format.
Death of Elizabeth and return to work
The Goulds returned to England in August of 1840, two years after their initial departure. Invigorated by the success of their expedition and the bounty of specimens he had collected, John and Elizabeth Gould threw themselves into the production of The Birds of Australia, preparing the first part for publication in December 1840. Work continued at a cracking pace until August 1841, when Gould and the heavily pregnant Elizabeth retreated to a rented cottage at Egham for Elizabeth to go into confinement.
On 10th August 1841, Elizabeth gave birth to their eighth child, a daughter who they named Sarah. While Elizabeth was in good spirits immediately after the delivery, her health suddenly declined: five days after Sarah’s birth, Elizabeth Gould died of puerperal fever. The loss of Elizabeth was devastating. Along with his life partner and mother of his children, John Gould had lost his most dedicated artist.
Although Gould was said to never fully recover emotionally from Elizabeth’s death (he would never remarry), he barely took a break from his work. He quickly enlisted a young artist, Henry Constantine Richter, to assist with the completion of the outstanding plates required for The Birds of Australia. The two worked diligently on the project over the next several years; the seventh and final volume was released in 1848.
Gould continued to publish books on the fauna of Australia in subsequent decades, including the three volume work The Mammals of Australia between 1845 and 1863, and the two-volume Handbook to the Birds of Australia in 1865. Gould continued to enlist other artists to assist in the production of his plates throughout his life, including colourist and lithographer William Matthew Hart, and celebrated natural history illustrator Josef Wolf.
Hummingbirds: Gould's mid-life passion
John Gould popularised hummingbirds during the Great Exhibition of 1851 (a spectacular display of the industry and culture of the British Empire) and through his publications.
In 1851 the Great Exhibition was held in London at the Crystal Palace. Gould was wily enough to have an exhibition of stuffed hummingbirds on display in the Zoological Gardens in Regents Park, a short distance from the Great Exhibition.
He took advantage of the crowds going to the Great Exhibition and charged his visitors six pence a time. Gould's exhibit attracted over 75,000 visitors and made a profit of 800 pounds.
On 10 June, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited the hummingbird exhibition. The Queen observed:
'It is the most beautiful and complete collection ever seen, and it is impossible to imagine anything so lovely as these little Humming Birds, their variety, and extraordinary brilliancy of their colours.'
Gould's last major expedition was to North America with his son Charles in 1857 in pursuit of hummingbirds.
The pinnacle of Gould's hummingbird obsession was the capture of a live Ruby-throat:
A Trochilus colubris captured for me by some friends in Washington immediately afterwards partook of some saccharine food that was presented to it, and in two hours it pumped the fluid out of a little bottle whenever I offered it; and in this way it lived with me a constant companion for several days travelling in a little, thin gauzy bag distended by a slender piece of whale bone and suspended to a button of my coat. It was only necessary for me to take the little bottle from my pocket to induce it to thrust its spiny bill through the gauze, protrude its lengthened tongue down the neck of the bottle, and pump up the fluid until it was satiated; it would then retire to the bottom of its little house, preen its wings and tail-feathers, and seem quite content.' John Gould, Introduction to the Trochilidae 1861, p.12.
By the end of the century the hummingbird craze was peaking. Millions of birds became victims of the fashion craze:
- in one week alone 400,000 skins were auctioned in 1888,
- in one day 12,000 skins were sold in a single public sale in London,
- one consignment from Brazil consisted of 3000 skins of ruby and topaz hummingbirds.
At the time of his death in 1881, John Gould had 5,378 hummingbirds in his personal collection.
John Gould's final years
John Gould was unwell by the late 1870s, but this did not deter him from working. His impressive career in publishing continued and in the period 1852-1880 he published ten more works, including several multi-volume works.
As Gould's interests changed from Australian birds to the forests of South America in search of hummingbirds, so did the interests of his correspondents. Gould, therefore set the trends and led the ornithological field for much of the 19th century.
A crowning achievement of Gould’s later career was his five volume work The Birds of Great Britain (1873). It represented a final evolution in Gould’s artistic style to more complex composition, incorporating nests and chicks into the plates. The work attracted a record 397 subscribers, and featured all of Gould’s artists and lithographers other than Elizabeth Gould and Edward Lear.
Sadly, although Gould's career continued apace up until his death, his personal life was marked by tragedy. Two of his three sons died in early adulthood: his oldest son, John Henry, passed away in India in 1855, and his youngest son Franklin died at sea in 1873, eight years before Gould’s own death. A year after Franklin’s passing, Gould’s faithful secretary, Edwin C. Prince, who had managed his affairs for over forty years, died of bronchitis.
These losses took a huge toll on Gould, who grew increasingly lonely and relied heavily on his three daughters for company (his middle son, Charles, lived abroad from early adulthood, working as a geologist and surveyor in Tasmania from 1859-1973 before settling in South America). He was supposedly distraught when his eldest daughter Eliza was married in 1869, stepping down from her role as his housekeeper.
Gould died in 1881, leaving a priceless collection of 12,395 specimens and a legacy of scientific knowledge. He chose his own epitaph: John Gould the Bird Man.
Gould after death
Following John Gould's death, his protegee and biographer Richard Bowdler-Sharpe went on to complete several of his unfinished works, including The Birds of Asia (7 volumes, 1850-1883), The Birds of New Guinea and the Adjacent Islands (5 volumes, 1875-1888), and A Monograph of the Trochilidae, or Family of Humming-birds. Supplement (1880-1887).
At the time of Gould's death, his stock of unsold copies, unbound text and plates in various states, lithographic stones, drawings and paintings, amounted to nearly thirty tons. The entire lot, along with Gould's copyright, was purchased by the London bookseller Henry Sotheran Ltd and put in storage for over 50 years until 1936, when ornithological book collector Ralph Ellis went to London and purchased a large part of the John Gould archives. This collection was left to the University of Kansas upon Ellis's death, where it remains to this day.
While most of Gould's specimens are held in the Natural History Museum in London, several are housed in museums and private collections across the globe - including the Australian Museum, which holds several mammal and bird type specimens nominated by Gould.
Gould's legacy included not only dozens of magnificent illustrated publications, but major contributions to 19th century science that are still relevant today, especially his work on Australian fauna. The Birds of Australia retains its prominence as the first comprehensive work on Australian ornithology: Gould is credited with describing almost half of all known Australian bird specimens. Gould's folio works also provide a snapshot of Australian wildlife prior to the ravages of colonialism - several of the species he describes are now endangered or extinct.
The Gould League of Bird Lovers
I hereby promise that I will protect native birds and will not collect their eggs. I also promise that I will endeavour to prevent others from injuring native birds and destroying their eggs. The Gould League pledge, 1909
For many who grew up in Australia over the last century, the Gould name evokes a childhood nostalgia. Their first introduction to birds and wildlife was often through the organisation known as the 'Gould League'. Founded in 1909 to encourage the love and protection of Australian native birds, the Gould League honours the work of John and Elizabeth Gould.
Gould League members were recruited via schools and received membership certificates and badges. Members were encouraged to enter competitions in bird mimicry, write stories and poems and attend 'bird-day concerts'.
Over the years the League's aims changed to include a wider focus on environmental conservation and all wildlife.
More than one million Australians have joined the Gould League since 1909. Today the Gould League is an independent environmental education organisation and is still highly active in Australian schools with over 60,000 students participating.
Want to know more about John Gould? Here is a list of references for further reading.
- Australian Museum (2004) John Gould Inc.: An Ornithologist and his Artists. The Australian Museum, Sydney.
- Chisholm, A. H. (1944) The Story of Elizabeth Gould. Hawthorn Press, Melbourne.
- Datta, A (1997) John Gould in Australia: Letters and drawings with a Catalogue of Manuscripts, Correspondence and Drawings Relating to the Birds and Mammals of Australia Held in the Natural History Museum, London. Melbourne University Press, London.
- Jackson, C.E. (1975) Bird illustrators : some artists in early lithography. H. F. & G. Witherby, London.
- Lambourne, M. (1987) John Gould: Bird Man. Osberton Productions, Milton Keynes.
- Sauer, G. C. (1982) John Gould The Bird Man: a chronology and bibliography. Sotheran, London.
- Sauer, G. C. and Datta, A. (1998-2001) John Gould The Bird Man: correspondence: with a chronology of his life and works. In 4 vols. Maurizio Martino Publisher: USA.
- Tree, I. (1991) The Ruling Passion of John Gould: a biography of the bird man. Barrie & Jenkins, London.
- Tree, I. (2003) The Bird Man: The Extraordinary Story of John Gould. Ebury Press, London.
- Chisholm, A. H., 'Gould, John (1804-1881), zoologist', in Douglas Pike (ed.), Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1966, pp. 465-467.
- Cambell, A. G. (1938) 'John Gould Amongst Tasmanian Birds', Emu, vol. 38.
- Cayley, N. (1938) 'John Gould as an Illustrator.', Emu, vol. 38.
- Chisholm, A. H. (1938) 'John Gilbert. Some Letters to Gould', Emu, vol. 38.
- Chisholm, A. H. (1938) 'Some Letters from George Grey to John Gould', Emu, vol. 38.
- Chisholm, A. H. (1942) 'John Gould's Australian Prospectus', Emu, vol. 42, pp. 74-84.
- Dickinson, D. J. (1938) 'A Resume of Gould's Major Works.', Emu, vol. 38.
- Hindwood, K. A. (1938) 'Mrs. Gould.', Emu, vol. 38.
- Hindwood, K. A. (1938) 'John Gould in Australia.', Emu, vol. 38.
- Hindwood, K. A. (1938) 'The Letters of Edwin C. Prince to John Gould in Australia.', Emu, vol. 38.
- Hindwood, K. A. (1938) 'Some Gouldian Letters.', Emu, vol. 38.
- Iredale, T. (1938) 'John Gould: The Bird Man.', Emu, vol. 38.
- Jackson, C. E. (1978) 'H C Richter: John Gould's Unknown Bird Artist'. Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, vol. 9, pp. 10-14.
- Jackson, C. E. and Lambourne, M (1990) 'Bayfield: John Gould's Unknown Colourer', Archives of Natural History, 17(2), pp.194-195.
- Mack, G. (1938) 'John Gould's Correspondence with Sir Frederick McCoy.', Emu, vol. 38, .
- McEvey, A R (1973) John Gould's Contribution to British Art: a note on its authenticity. Art Monograph 2. Sydney University Press for The Australian Academy of the Humanities, Sydney.
- Sharpe, R. B. (1938) 'Analytical Index to the Works of...J. Gould...With a Biographical Memoir and Portrait', Emu, vol. 38.
- Stephens, M. (2005) ‘Patterns of Nature: The Art of John Gould at the National Library’, National Library of Australia News, 15 (7), April, pp.7-10.
- Whitley, G.P. (1938) 'John Gould's Associates', Emu, vol. 38.
- Whittell, H. M.(1938) 'Gould's Western Australian Birds, with Notes on His Collectors', Emu, vol. 38.
- Stephens, M. (2004) ‘John Gould's place in Australian culture’, Ockham’s Razor, ABC Radio, 13 June 2004.
- Cook, K.S. (2013) 'Gould Collections at KU: The Story of the Gould Collection', The University of Kansas, September 2014. https://exhibits.lib.ku.edu/exhibits/show/gould/about/kucollections