Bird Woman: Elizabeth Gould and the Birds of Australia

If you’ve been through the Allport gallery recently, you will have noticed the birds. They are familiar birds, with all of the endemic Tasmanian species represented – many visitors will recognise them from their own backyard. And they are lovely. But the thing that convinced us that it was worth getting these prints out for display is the controversy – whose hand created them?

John Gould was a successful entrepreneur with a flourishing publishing and taxidermy business. In the 19th century he became famous for his guides to birds, which were all beautifully illustrated with hand-coloured lithographic prints. John (known as the bird man) was a competent draughtsman, but the main artist he depended on to draw these birds was his wife, Elizabeth. As is often the case when a wife works for her husband, Elizabeth’s contribution has gone relatively unnoticed throughout history.

Elizabeth Gould was an accomplished artist when she married John, and his use for her work meant that she was given every opportunity to develop her skills. She was also a loving mother and wife. Author Melissa Ashley, who opened the Allport’s exhibition on 7 September, has recently published a novel to tell Elizabeth’s story – The Birdman’s Wife. This exhibition is shining a spotlight on that story, and on the story of the Tasmanian birds themselves.

A bird in the hand

In 1838 John and Elizabeth left three of their children in England and travelled with their oldest son to Van Diemen’s Land, to begin fieldwork on the Birds of Australia books.

Prior to this trip, Elizabeth had mostly based her sketches on taxidermy specimens. When looking at stuffed birds in the exhibition (on loan from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery), it is worth thinking about how different this would have been to seeing the creatures alive, and in their natural habitat.

Left: Ground parakeet, Pezoporus formosus, ALMFA:TAHO / Right: Yellow wattlebird, Anthochaera paradoxa, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

By coming to Tasmania, the Goulds were able to investigate the birdlife in much greater detail. John gained direct access to specimens, and was able to identify new species, and Elizabeth was able to observe the birds alive and in the wild. Many of the Tasmanian birds are pictured perched on plants from their natural habitats, including their native food sources.

The sketch below, which made its way into the TAHO collections as part of the W.L Crowther bequest, shows Elizabeth’s careful observation of the details and colours of nature. Sketches such as this were the basis for the lithographic prints in the final, published books. The sketches had to be copied onto stone, printed, and then hand-coloured.

Honey eater [Crescent honeyeater] pencil and watercolour on paper by Elizabeth Gould, W.L Crowther Collection, TAHO (AUTAS001144583184)
Elizabeth Gould did not have the opportunity to complete the final steps in the printing process for all of the the Birds of Australia volumes. Tragically, she died during the birth of their sixth child.

You will not see Elizabeth’s name on the prints in this exhibition. Before his wife’s death, John Gould typically credited the artwork ‘J&E Gould’ (as shown in the image of the Orange-bellied Parrot below). After her death, the prints bear the name of John, and the artist he employed to complete the engravings. However, Elizabeth was responsible for a large number of original drawings, made during her time in Tasmania and Australia. In most cases, it was these drawings (like the one above) that provided the form, composition and colour that was used by the later engravers and colourists.

Orange-bellied Parrot / ‘Euphema aurantia’ : Gould in Gould, John, The birds of Australia : in seven volumes, ALMFA: TAHO

For science! 

There is no question that John Gould was energetic and productive in his work. He was largely responsible for the text of Birds of Australia, which is written in first person like a naturalist’s journal. In his writing, he is quite frank about getting his hands dirty with the work of shooting the birds, collecting their eggs and investigating their biology…in all manner of ways.

Forty-spotted Pardalote / ‘Pardalotus quadragintus’ in Gould, John, The birds of Australia : in seven volumes, ALMFA: TAHO

Of the (now endangered) Forty-spotted Pardalote he wrote:

‘This species is peculiar to Van Diemen’s Land, where it inhabits the most impenetrable forests which cover that island, particularly those of its southern portion. I found it very abundant in the gulleys under Mount Wellington, and observed it breeding in one of the loftiest trees, at about forty feet from the ground; I afterwards took a perfectly developed white egg from the body of a female killed on the 5th of October. The weight of this little bird was rather more than a quarter of an ounce; the stomach was muscular and contained the remains of the larvae of lepidoptera, which with coleopteran and other insects constitute its food.’

Gould also wrote about eating Tasmanian birds such as the Green Rosellas, Yellow Wattlebirds, Cape Barren Geese, Ground Parakeet and Brush bronze-winged pigeon. He did not turn up his nose at any of them.

Of the Green Rosellas he commented:

‘… many species of the family constitute at certain seasons a staple portion of the food of the settlers : soon after the establishment of the colonies of Van Diemen’s Land, pies made out of the bird here represented were commonly eaten at every table, and even at the present time are not of unfrequent occurrence. It was not long after my arrival in the country before I tested the goodness of the flesh of this bird as a viand, and I found it so excellent that I partook of it whenever an opportunity for my doing so presented itself.

Green Rosella / ‘Platycercus flaviventris’ in Gould, John, The birds of Australia : in seven volumes, ALMFA: TAHO

One of Morton Allport’s photographs, taken several decades after the Goulds’ visit, serves to illustrate John Gould’s description of our local wattlebirds

‘The neighbourhood of the Macquarie Plains is a locality particularly favourable to this bird, where hundreds are annually shot and sent to the markets of Hobart Town for the purposes of the table. It is highly prized as an article of food, and in winter becomes so excessively fat as to exceed in this respect any bird I ever saw.

I have been informed that a large tea- cupful of oil may be procured from two of these birds, and that as it gives a light may be burnt in lieu of candles.’

Allport, Morton, [Shooter’s bag – a brace of wattle birds and several quail], AUTAS001126185214, ALMFA: TAHO
The Allport connection

The Allport family were important settlers in Tasmania at the time of the Goulds’ visit. Morton Allport was only seven years old, but twenty years later, he acted as an agent for John Gould, collecting subscriptions for the books. Morton himself was a subscriber, and his copies of the books are in the Allport collection.

Morton was also very interested in the natural sciences, on display in this exhibition are Morton Allport’s own collection of Tasmanian birds eggs and one of his guns, used for shooting birds. He collected eggs and bird specimens for John Gould in London.

Left: Morton Allport’s fowling gun, ALMFA: TAHO / Right: Morton Allport’s egg collection, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

This exhibition is open until 27 January 2018. You can keep up to date with what’s happening at Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts through the Allport Facebook page, on Eventbrite and through our website.

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Author: Jess Walters

Jess is an archivist with the State Library and Archive Service, and is an acting curator of the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts.