John Gould was one of the outstanding figures in the world of 19th-century bird art.
His name is associated with a vast outpouring of folio volumes of bird plates, brilliantly
hand-colored and carefully executed. Yet Gould himself was mainly an ornithologist and a
highly successful businessman, and only secondarily an artist. At age twenty-three he was
appointed Curator and Chief Taxidermist of the newly created Zoological Society of London.
During his lifetime Gould was responsible for the publication of more than 3,100
hand-colored lithographs, depicting birds from many parts of the world. Recognizing his
own limitations as an artist, he employed some of the foremost illustrators of the day to
carry out his designs and sketches. His wife, Elizabeth, learned the techniques of
lithography, which Gould never did, and skillfully transferred many of her husband's
sketches onto stones. Elizabeth's early death at the age of thirty-seven deprived Gould of
his primary artistic assistant.
As volume after volume was issued, the growth of Gould's sense of design was evident.
From the beginning his plates commonly displayed a pair of a bird species, often with
chicks. Background settings varied in complexity and type, depending on who did the
lithography. By the second half of the century, Gould's plates showed more lively studies
of birds drawn from fresh-killed specimens, and included many eggs, nests and chicks, and
foregrounds which were natural, detailed and well-defined. Composition of the picture,
rather than the sketch of a likeness, was paramount to Gould.
Most of the hand-colored lithographs in this exhibition are from Gould's magnificent
volumes. The first, a trogon and a toucan, are examples of the brilliant birds Gould
loved. The bold lines and broad sweeps of color are characteristic of the effects which
could be achieved by lithography.