John Gould (1804-1881)
John Gould was born in 1804, at Lyme Regis in Dorset. In 1818 his father was appointed a foreman gardener at the Royal Gardens, Windsor Castle. As a youth Gould also trained at these gardens and became an expert in taxidermy. In 1825 Gould moved to London and set himself up as a self-employed taxidermist. He was the first known taxidermist to have received royal patronage after preserving a Thick-kneed Bustard for King George IV. Numerous orders followed from the king with the most arduous task being stuffing the famous giraffe given by the Pasha of Egypt.
He met and married Elizabeth Coxen in 1827. A talented artist in her own right, Elizabeth’s drawings and lithographic skills were fundamental to the success of John Gould’s renowned publications.
In 1830, he obtained a number of specimens of the exotic and little-known birds of Northern India, forming the bold idea of issuing a book about them, which was rejected by the publishers. Gould was determined to issue the book himself at his own expense and so he arranged for his talented wife to draw and lithograph the plates form his own sketches. He persuaded N.A. Vigors to write the text for him and then set about getting subscribers for his publication. At this, he was spectacularly successful and this list was headed by Victoria (Queen from 1837) and Prince Albert, an emperor, a king, three princes and nine dukes. The resulting book, A Century of Birds… from the Himalaya Mountains, was published in 1832. This folio size (550mm x 380mm) was to become his format for all his great works.
Encouraged by the response to his first book, Gould set about on a more ambitious project: an attempt to illustrate all of the birds of Europe. He engaged Edward Lear to share the job of illustrating the work with Elizabeth and between them they produced 449 plates for the Birds of Europe which was completed in 1837. This established Gould not only in the eyes of the public but also within the scientific community.
He then sailed to Australia in May 1838 with his wife and eldest son, aged 7, a young nephew, a man-servant and a maid-servant, and his collector John Gilbert. He stayed in Australia for two years leaving from Sydney on 9 April 1840. On his return he took on his greatest work The Birds of Australia begun in London on 1 December 1840. The final parts, making a total of thirty-six, appeared in 1848. They were bound in seven volumes and the cost to subscribers was £115. A supplement volume issued in parts was completed in 1869.
The Birds of New Guinea and the Adjacent Papuan Islands, Gould’s last great work, was completed after his death by Richard Bowdler Sharpe. Gould prepared the first twelve of the 25 original parts of the work, while Sharpe, Gould’s protégé and devoted friend, was responsible for the remainder of the monograph. Sharpe was more than forty years junior to Gould, whom he had met when he was only fifteen, and they both shared a passionate interest in ornithology. In his last years, although an invalid and often in pain, Gould was always pleased when Sharpe visited him to look at his collection of skins and discuss the latest bird discoveries.
No other ornithologist can claim to have discovered and illustrated faithfully so many species of birds. The Birds of New Guinea are a fitting tribute to a long and prolific life in the field or ornithology. They are a magnificent record of the exotic world that John Gould so dearly loved, not only for the scientific value but also for his love of nature.