The Extraordinary life of John Gould

‘… It was not, however, until I arrived in the country and found myself surrounded by objects as strange as if I had been transported to another planet…’ are the impressions and words of John Gould on his arrival in Australia in 1838.

It was only three years previous that John Gould conceived the idea of publishing The Birds of Australia. He had already published A Century of Birds… from the Himalaya Mountains in 1832 to great acclaim. Gould had been spectacularly successful in his list of subscribers for this first work headed by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, an Emperor, a King, three Princes and nine Dukes. Further publications followed with The Birds of Europe 1832-37, A Monograph of the Ramphastidae, or Family of Toucans 1834-35, A Monograph of The Trogonidae in 1838 and A Synopsis of the Birds of Australia and the Adjacent Islands illustrating only the heads of 168 birds in 1837.

This was followed by the premature publication of The Birds of Australia. These twenty lithographs were soon cancelled are now known as the ‘suppressed parts.’ It had become obvious to Gould that if he was to do justice to The Birds of Australia he would have to collect the specimens himself by travelling to Australia rather than using the stuffed and preserved specimen birds already in England.

Travelling to Australia in the early 19th century was a major undertaking. John Gould, his pregnant wife Elizabeth, their eldest son and assistant John Gilbert arrived in Hobart after a four-month voyage, leaving five children behind in England. The Hobart Town Courier proclaimed that the Gould’s, ‘… have come at great expense and sacrifice of comfort, purely with the view of making this work still more valuable by taking their drawings from live specimens.’

One of our favourite pieces from The Birds of Australia is the The Western Bristlebird (Dasyornis Tenuirostris).

When Gould first noted the western bristlebird its habitat stretched all the way to Perth from Albany and the south west of Western Australia. Sadly it is now an endangered species and found between Two Peoples Bay and Waychinicup, and in Fitzgerald River National Park. The small translocated population near Walpole (West of Albany) may now be extinct.

However although Gould had intended to focus on the amazing birdlife of Australia he could not resist the allure of the mammals he encountered. For the first and only time in his career he put his efforts into these unusual, strange and wonderful animals. He diarised  ‘The native black, while conducting me through the forest or among the park-like trees of the open plains, would often point out the pricking of an Oppossum’s nails on the bark of a Eucalyptus or other tree… tired by a long and laborious day’s walk under a burning sun, I frequently encamped for the night by the side of a river, a natural pond or waterhole… while thus reposing. The surface of the water was often disturbed by the little concentric circles formed by the Ornithorhynchus (Platypus), or perhaps an Echidna came trotting up towards me’.

On their return to England in August 1840 Gould commenced publication not only of The Birds of Australia but also The Mammals of Australia.

An animal from this collection which is now sadly extinct is the Rufous hare-wallaby (Lagorchestes Hirsutus).

The first description of this species was by Gould, after his assistant John Gilbert collected specimens near York, Western Australia in 1844. Only a few subspecies are found at Bernier and Dorre Islands at Shark Bay off the coast of WA. Another subspecies that was originally discovered in the Tanami Desert in central Australia became so reduced in numbers that the existing members have been translocated to captive colonies in Western Australia.

The species, also known as the mala, is currently classed as vulnerable making this original lithograph a poignant reminder of a mammal that used to be distributed widely across Western and Central Australia.

John Gould sent John Gilbert back to Australia to collect more specimens throughout the parts of the country he was unable to visit himself. Sadly Gilbert, while travelling with the Leichhardt expedition was tragically killed by Aborigines in North Australia in 1845.

By December 1840 the first lithographs for The Birds of Australia were sent out to the 250 subscribers. Elizabeth Gould was responsible for most of the working drawings, however due to her untimely death giving birth to their eighth child, her output was only 84 of the 681 finished lithographic plates. The remainder, apart from two, were completed by Henry Richter. The Mammals of Australia commenced publication in 1845 with 125 subscribers. When finalised, in 1860 each subscriber had received 182 individual lithographs.

John Gould died in 1881 while working on The Birds of New Guinea and the adjacent Papuan Islands. The publication was completed in 1888 by R. Bowdler Sharpe.

What makes John Gould’s contribution to the world of Science and Natural History more remarkable is his humble beginnings. He was born in Lyme England in 1804, the son of a working-class gardener. Without a formal education, connections or patrons he rose to the lofty heights of Fellow of the Royal Society and Vice President of The Zoological Society.

He had been apprenticed at the age of 14 to the Head Gardener at the Royal Gardens, Kew. He was a keen amateur ornithologist and became proficient at egg blowing and taxidermy selling his specimens to the ‘Boys’ at Eton.

By 1824 he had abandoned gardening to concentrate on the more lucrative trade of taxidermy and took up the position as Curator and Preserver to the Museum of the Zoological Society of London. His big break came in 1829 when he was commissioned by King George IV to stuff his recently deceased pet giraffe. George IV’s obsession with his giraffe or ‘cameleopard’, as it was sometimes described, had been shared by some and ridiculed by others. The King’s request gave John Gould his first taste of publicity and a vision of the public’s growing interest in natural history and the exotic.

John Gould was not only a great natural historian, his genius showed in his breadth of vision, his great energy and his ability to encourage others to extend themselves to their highest potential as he indeed had done for himself.

Trowbridge Gallery has bought and sold original Gould bird and mammal lithographs for over thirty years. A search of our website will reveal a great disparity in prices from a few hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars. Demand for certain lithographs has always been greater for some than others, with iconic and well know birds and mammals being more sought after.  With a finite number available, this pushes the market price up. Condition is also a major factor, and all lithographs value will suffer if in poor condition.

Leave a Reply