When we think of birds and illustrations, most frequently the work of John James Audubon comes to mind. But there were others:
John Gould’s ornithology books were hugely popular and cemented his name in history. But his wife’s illustrations were a big reason why.
In 1830, when English taxidermist John Gould was keen to publish his first volume of bird species, his wife Elizabeth asked him who would create the illustrations. She knew her unartistic husband wouldn’t be up to the task. According to an 1893 biography of John, he replied, “Why you, of course.” Within the next decade, Elizabeth’s artistic talent would help cement the Gould name in ornithological history. But unlike her husband, her name would be largely forgotten.
“We know that John Gould himself was not a particularly talented artist,” says Robert Peck, a curator and historian at Drexel University. John could produce outlines and rough sketches, but Elizabeth created the final illustrations that appeared in their collections.
Born in England to a middle-class military family, Elizabeth likely studied drawing, painting, and botany, which was customary for young Victorian women. By the time she met John in her early twenties, she was working as a governess and he was a curator and taxidermist at the Zoological Society of London. In a surviving letter to her mother, Elizabeth wrote that she found the work dull and lonely. Elizabeth and John married in 1829, and the couple wasted no time in employing her artistic talents: A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains was published just two years later.
The collection, which contains over one hundred lithograph illustrations of rare Indian birds, was an immediate success. “They were the first illustrations of a number of species from the Himalayas that the Western world had ever seen before,” Peck says. The Goulds soon began work on the second collection, The Birds of Europe.
The projects tested Elizabeth’s limited training. Lithography is an elaborate skill involving carefully sketching, chemically etching, and coloring plates. Elizabeth’s artistic training provided a foundation, and as she threw herself into her work, her techniques developed rapidly. She took lessons from Edward Lear, an English artist and writer. Though he was best known for popularizing the limerick, Lear was a skilled artist and worked closely with the Goulds on their first two publications…
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