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John Gould: Ornithologist

6th September 2023.

A copy of John Gould’s Monograph of the Trogonidae will be offered in the Books, Maps and Manuscripts Sale at Tennants Auctioneers on 29th September, with an estimate of £15,000-20,000 (all figures exclude buyer’s premium).

From lowly beginnings, John Gould (1804-1881) became the most celebrated British ornithologist of the 19th century, contributing enormously to ornithology and evolutionary science whilst amassing a personal fortune through his self-published and now highly prized folios.

Born in Lyme Regis, Gould began his working life as a gardener under the supervision of his father, who became the foreman gardener at Windsor Castle. From an early age he immersed himself in nature, observing and learning about English garden birds, before going on to master the art of taxidermy. Following a brief spell working as a gardener at Ripley Castle, North Yorkshire, Gould moved to London to set himself up as a taxidermist.

In 1827, Gould was taken on by N.A. Vigors as the taxidermist for the collection of the new Zoological Society of London, and in 1829 he married Elizabeth Coxen, a governess whose education and drawing skills would prove of great advantage. The following year, a collection of Himalayan bird skins, many unknown to western science, were sent to the Zoological Society; the birds were described by Vigors and published in a folio by Gould with lithographic illustrations executed by his wife.

Gould was set on the path he would follow for the rest of his life, publishing an extraordinary forty-one folios with over 3000 plates, as well as writing numerous scientific papers. Gould would study, describe, and sketch the birds, before having his wife or later other artists such as Henry Constantine Richter, William Matthew Hart and Edward Lear complete the hand-coloured lithographs to his exact specifications. The illustrations were beautifully and carefully executed, artistic yet naturalistic depictions of birds set amongst appropriate foliage.

With great enthusiasm and perseverance, Gould embarked on numerous explorations, including a landmark voyage to Australia during which he discovered and described hundreds of new species and subspecies. He also contributed to Darwin’s theory of evolution, having identified the bird species brought back on the Darwin’s second voyage on HMS Beagle, and realised that many of the specimens were different types of finch.

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