John Gould - a man of great industry

John Gould (1804-1881) was a businessman, publisher, and obsessive bird collector with an eye for a talented artist. He displayed his entrepreneurial skills from a young age while an apprentice in the royal gardens at Windsor, where, by the age of 14, he was selling stuffed birds to the sons of the aristocracy at Eton College. By the time he was 21 he had set up his own taxidermy business in London.

Illustration of John Gould

Illustration of John Gould
Photographer: Australian Museum Photography © Out of copyright

Gould is best remembered for his folio volumes of superb colour-plate illustrations of birds. In all, 2999 unique images were produced for these publications, many were the first illustrations of previously unknown species.

It is estimated that over half a million individual hand-coloured plates were produced under the Gould name. This extraordinary output was the result of Gould's drive and business acumen as well as an ability to develop a strong international group of specimen collectors, artists and administrative agents.

It is an irony that a man who never finished a picture is remembered as one of the most significant bird artists of the Victorian age. More skilled as an entrepreneur than as an artist, Gould relied on his group of dedicated artists, lithographers and colourers to translate his preparatory sketches into finished illustrations. Yet during his lifetime and beyond, Gould has often been represented as the sole creator of the thousands of plates published in his books.

The main artists and lithographers who worked with Gould included his wife, Elizabeth; Edward Lear - now better known for his limericks and nursery rhymes; the great natural history artist, Josef Wolf; and Gould's long-term employees Henry Constantine Richter and William Hart. A number of these artists are considered the finest practitioners of natural history art in the 19th century.

The late Alan McEvey, a world expert on Gould's art says:

It is not easy to define the style of a Gould plate and it was, in fact, not a static but a changing one. The later works, for example The Birds of Asia and The Birds of Great Britain, show a confident elaboration of setting that was earlier lacking. Gould plates represent a varied appeal; a bold and colourful array of parrots for example, or the exotic richness of the trogons, and the magnificence of the humming birds, or, in gentler terms, the subdued harmonies of the waders. Added to these are the finer distinctions of style ranging from the early and relatively short-lived delicacy of Elizabeth Gould's hand and the skill of Edward Lear, to the expertise of Richter and Hart.

Matthew Stephens
Ms Leone Lemmer
Last Updated:

Tags John Gould,