John Gould - the early years

Gould was born at Lyme Regis in Dorset on 14 September 1804. His early years there and at Stoke Hill near Surrey gave him the opportunity to develop an interest in natural history.

The 'State of the Giraffe', 1829

The 'State of the Giraffe', 1829
Photographer: Unknown © Private Collection

At the age of 14, he took up his father's trade and was apprenticed to the head gardener at Kew. He was a keen amateur ornithologist, and became proficient at egg blowing and taxidermy, selling his specimens to the 'Boys' at Eton. After a period working in the gardens of Ripley Castle in Yorkshire, he returned, aged 20, to London where he abandoned gardening for the increasingly lucrative trade of taxidermy.

At the age of 21 he set up his own taxidermy business in London, and in the London Directory for 1832-4, he was listed as 'a bird and beast stuffer'. The following year he appeared in the directory as 'a naturalist'.

In 1828 Gould accepted the position of Curator and Preserver to the Museum of the Zoological Society of London, at a salary of £100 per annum. At the same time he continued his private taxidermy business, acted as advisor to national institutions and travelled widely in England and on the Continent, buying and selling specimens.

The King's Giraffe

John Gould was known for his skills in taxidermy in October 1829 when he was commissioned by King George IV to stuff his recently deceased pet giraffe.

The 25-year-old Gould had been in the professional taxidermy business for four years. The King's request gave Gould his first taste of publicity and a vision of the public's growing interest in natural history and the exotic.

George IV's obsession with his giraffe or 'cameleopard', as it was sometimes described, had been shared by some and ridiculed by others. A diplomatic gift from Mehemit Ali, Pasha of Egypt, the animal arrived in London on 11 August 1827. The giraffe had been one of three offered as gifts from Egypt. The first giraffe was sent to the King of France, the second to the Emperor of Austria, while the third was despatched to England.

Both the English and Austrian giraffes were dead within two years. The French animal was stronger than its counterparts and lived in Paris at the Jardin des Plantes (a Zoological Park) for sixteen years - an achievement of which the French enjoyed reminding the British.

Matthew Stephens
Ms Leone Lemmer
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