From: A Monograph of the Trochilidae, or Family of Hummingbirds
First edition: London, 1849-61 (supplement printed 1880-87)
Hand-colored lithographs with gum arabic metallic detailing
Paper size: 21 1/2” x 14 1/2”
Framed size: 33” x 26 1/2” (gold/wood frames)
Framed size: 27 1/2” x 21” (silver frames)
John Gould was without question the most prolific ornithological artist of the 19th century, and the only one to rival John James Audubon in ambition and quality. The19th century was a time of intense fascination with discoveries in natural history, especially regarding knowledge of the wildlife of exotic lands. Gould shared the romantic enthusiasm of his time for such subjects, as well as the popular impulse to catalogue exotic wildlife. He combined his passion for natural history with outstanding scientific, artistic, and entrepreneurial talents. Drawing on these abilities, he embarked on a series of projects that would eventually make him the leading publisher of ornithological illustrations in Victorian Britain. Gould’s unparalleled career spanned five decades, and he produced a monumental series of books of birds throughout the world.
From the time he took up taxidermy in his early teens, Gould was devoted to recording bird life, either as he observed it personally or as it was reported to him by other ornithologists. He procured the scientific information through extensive correspondence, travel, and field research. The preparatory drawings that he produced were passed on for completion to skilled illustrators, most notably his wife, Elizabeth, and Edward Lear. The plates which resulted from such partnerships were a splendid fusion of art and science, with a scope than remains unsurpassed. Stunning and at the same time highly accurate, Gould’s illustrations linked beauty to science, and science to beauty, in and an unprecedented manner.
Of all his works, many of Gould’s best-known images come from this beautiful and comprehensive monograph on hummingbirds. One of his largest productions, the Hummingbirds was also the most painstaking, meticulously detailed project that the ornithologist attempted. In order to create accurate representations of the tiny, delicately beautiful birds, Gould invented a new method of coloring, using metallic pigments to reproduce the iridescence of their plumage. Most images also show at least one subject in flight to further accentuate the coloring of their feathers. The compositions generally show the birds in animated groupings of two or three, surrounded by foliage and landscapes. All of the hummingbirds are drawn to scale and are anatomically correct to the smallest detail, their brilliant coloring highlighted with gold and transparent luster.
Most of the subjects in the book were taken from Gould’s personal collection of hummingbird specimens, a number of which he exhibited at the Zoological Gardens, Regent’s Park, during the Great Exhibition of 1851. Joining commerce with science, Gould also utilized the exhibition to display his method of metallic coloring (a shrewd move that worked to publicize his monograph). Gould’s exhibition was a major success, attracting more that 75,000 visitors and, very possibly, not a few of the 273 subscribers to A Monograph of the Trochilidae. These tiny, exuberantly colored birds captured the attention and affection of a vast number of European viewers. Gould’s Hummingbirds represents a splendid triumph of aesthetic sensitivity and scientific rigor.