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John Gould

With the obsession of a collector and an eye for artistic talent, John Gould succeeded in creating one of the most recognisable and long-lasting brand names in natural history.

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.

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. Gould relied on his group of dedicated artists, lithographers and colourers to translate his preparatory sketches into finished illustrations.

Who was John Gould?

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.

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

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."

His 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'
The 'State of the Giraffe', 1829 Photographer: Unknown © Private Collection Image: -
Australian Museum

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.

Gould in later life

John Gould was unwell by the late 1870s, but this did not deter him from working.

Mammals of Australia
John Gould in 1875 Photographer: Australian Museum Photography © Australian Museum Research Library Image: Stuart Humphreys
Australian Museum

As Gould's interests changed from Australian birds to the forests of South America in search of hummingbirds, so did the interests of his correspondents. Gould, therefore set the trends and led the ornithological field for much of the 19th century.

His impressive career in publishing continued and in the period 1852-1880 ten more beautiful editions published. Many of these were multi-volumed. These include:

  • A Monograph of the Ramphastidae, or Family of Toucans (2nd ed)
  • A Monograph of Trogonidae, or Family of Trogons
  • The Birds of Great Britain
  • Birds of New Guinea, and the adjacent Papuan Islands.

Gould died in 1881, leaving a priceless collection of 12,395 specimens and a legacy of scientific knowledge. He chose his own epitaph: John Gould the Bird Man.

At the time of his death, his stock of unsold copies, unbound text and plates in various states, lithographic stones, drawings and paintings, amounted to nearly thirty tons. The entire lot, along with Gould's copyright, was purchased by the London bookseller, Henry Sotheran Ltd, and put in storage for over 50 years until 1936, when Ralph Ellis went to London and purchased a large part of the John Gould archives.

Hummingbirds - Gould's last passion

One of John Gould's last great passions was for hummingbirds. At the time of his death in 1881 he had an amazing 5,378 hummingbirds in his personal collection.

A monograph of the Trochilidae or family of hummingbirds. Supple
Trochilidae hummingbirds Photographer: Australian Museum Photography © Australian Museum Research Library Image: Leone Lemmer
Research Library

John Gould popularised hummingbirds during the Great Exhibition of 1851 (a spectacular display of the industry and culture of the British Empire) and through his publications. Gould's last major expedition was to North America with his son Charles in 1857 in pursuit of hummingbirds.

The pinnacle of Gould's hummingbird obsession was the capture of a live Ruby-throat:

'A Trochilus colubris captured for me by some friends in Washington immediately afterwards partook of some saccharine food that was presented to it, and in two hours it pumped the fluid out of a little bottle whenever I offered it; and in this way it lived with me a constant companion for several days travelling in a little, thin gauzy bag distended by a slender piece of whale bone and suspended to a button of my coat. It was only necessary for me to take the little bottle from my pocket to induce it to thrust its spiny bill through the gauze, protrude its lengthened tongue down the neck of the bottle, and pump up the fluid until it was satiated; it would then retire to the bottom of its little house, preen its wings and tail-feathers, and seem quite content.'

John Gould, Introduction to the Trochilidae 1861, p.12.

Hummingbird Craze

In 1851 the Great Exhibition was held in London at the Crystal Palace. Gould was wily enough to have an exhibition of stuffed hummingbirds on display in the Zoological Gardens in Regents Park, a short distance from the Great Exhibition.

He took advantage of the crowds going to the Great Exhibition and charged his visitors six pence a time and made a profit of 800 pounds. Gould's exhibit attracted over 75,000 visitors.

On 10 June, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited the hummingbird exhibition. The Queen observed:

'It is the most beautiful and complete collection ever seen, and it is impossible to imagine anything so lovely as these little Humming Birds, their variety, and extraordinary brilliancy of their colours.'

By the end of the century the hummingbird craze was peaking. Millions of birds became victims of the fashion craze:

  • in one week alone 400,000 skins were auctioned in 1888,
  • in one day 12,000 skins were sold in a single public sale in London,
  • one consignment from Brazil consisted of 3000 skins of ruby and topaz hummingbirds.

The Gould League of Bird Lovers

Founded in 1909 to encourage the love and protection of Australian native birds, the name Gould League honours the work of John and Elizabeth Gould.

Gould League camp 1937
Gould League camp Photographer: Michael Sharland © Australian Museum Archives Image: Michael Sharland
Out of copyright

"I hereby promise that I will protect native birds and will not collect their eggs. I also promise that I will endeavour to prevent others from injuring native birds and destroying their eggs." (The Gould League pledge, 1909)

For many who grew up in Australia over the last century, the Gould name evokes a childhood nostalgia. Their first introduction to birds and wildlife was often through the organisation known as the 'Gould League'.

Gould League members were recruited via schools and received membership certificates and badges. Members were encouraged to enter competitions in bird mimicry, write stories and poems and attend 'bird-day concerts'.

Gould Member Certificate 1938
Gould Member Certificate 1938 Photographer: Australian Museum Photography © Gould League Image: Australian Museum
Gould League

Over the years the League's aims changed to include a wider focus on environmental conservation and all wildlife.

More than one million Australians have joined the Gould League since 1909. Today the Gould League is an independent environmental education organisation and is still highly active in Australian schools with over 60,000 students participating.

References and further reading

Want to know more about John Gould? Here is a list of references for further reading.


  • Australian Museum (2004) John Gould Inc.: An Ornithologist and his Artists. The Australian Museum, Sydney.
  • Chisholm, A. H. (1944) The Story of Elizabeth Gould. Hawthorn Press, Melbourne.
  • Datta, A (1997) John Gould in Australia: Letters and drawingswith a Catalogue of Manuscripts, Correspondence and Drawings Relating to the Birds and Mammals of Australia Held in the Natural History Museum, London. Melbourne University Press, London.
  • Lambourne, M. (1987) John Gould: Bird Man. Osberton Productions, Milton Keynes.
  • Sauer, G. C. (1982) John Gould The Bird Man: a chronology and bibliography. Sotheran, London.
  • Sauer, G. C. and Datta, A. (1998-2001) John Gould The Bird Man: correspondence: with a chronology of his life and works. In 4 vols. Maurizio Martino Publisher: USA.
  • Tree, I. (1991) The Ruling Passion of John Gould: a biography of the bird man. Barrie & Jenkins, London.

Book Chapters

  • Chisholm, A. H., 'Gould, John (1804-1881), zoologist', in Douglas Pike (ed.), Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1966, pp. 465-467.

Journal Articles

  • Cambell, A. G. (1938) 'John Gould Amongst Tasmanian Birds', Emu, vol. 38.
  • Cayley, N. (1938) 'John Gould as an Illustrator.', Emu, vol. 38.
  • Chisholm, A. H. (1938) 'John Gilbert. Some Letters to Gould', Emu, vol. 38.
  • Chisholm, A. H. (1938) 'Some Letters from George Grey to John Gould', Emu, vol. 38.
  • Chisholm, A. H. (1942) 'John Gould's Australian Prospectus', Emu, vol. 42, pp. 74-84.
  • Dickinson, D. J. (1938) 'A Resume of Gould's Major Works.', Emu, vol. 38.
  • Hindwood, K. A. (1938) 'Mrs. Gould.', Emu, vol. 38.
  • Hindwood, K. A. (1938) 'John Gould in Australia.', Emu, vol. 38.
  • Hindwood, K. A. (1938) 'The Letters of Edwin C. Prince to John Gould in Australia.', Emu, vol. 38.
  • Hindwood, K. A. (1938) 'Some Gouldian Letters.', Emu, vol. 38.
  • Iredale, T. (1938) 'John Gould: The Bird Man.', Emu, vol. 38.
  • Jackson, C. E. (1978) 'H C Richter: John Gould's Unknown Bird Artist'. Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, vol. 9, pp. 10-14.
  • Jackson, C. E. and Lambourne, M (1990) 'Bayfield: John Gould's Unknown Colourer', Archives of Natural History, 17(2), pp.194-195.
  • Mack, G. (1938) 'John Gould's Correspondence with Sir Frederick McCoy.', Emu, vol. 38, .
  • McEvey, A R (1973) John Gould's Contribution to British Art: a note on its authenticity. Art Monograph 2. Sydney University Press for The Australian Academy of the Humanities, Sydney.
  • Sharpe, R. B. (1938) 'Analytical Index to the Works of...J. Gould...With a Biographical Memoir and Portrait', Emu, vol. 38.
  • Stephens, M. (2005) ‘Patterns of Nature: The Art of John Gould at the National Library’, National Library of Australia News, 15 (7), April, pp.7-10.
  • Whitley, G.P. (1938) 'John Gould's Associates', Emu, vol. 38.
  • Whittell, H. M.(1938) 'Gould's Western Australian Birds, with Notes on His Collectors', Emu, vol. 38.

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Important people in Gould's life

Lithography Process

Lithography is the original form of planographic, or surface printing, and offered a new freedom to the artist or printer. The illustration could be drawn directly onto a highly polished chalky limestone block with special crayon pens. Drawing onto the stone was almost as natural an action as drawing onto paper.This photo gallery shows the lithographic process as it would have be used in the time of John Gould. Demonstrating the technique is Rew Hanks, Australian contemporary artist and printmaking teacher. Courtesy of Sydney Gallery School at Meadowbank TAFE.

Photos by Stuart Humphreys.

  • Print Making
  • Print Making
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  • Print Making
  • Print Making
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  • Print Making

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