Elizabeth Gould

Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird of the Himalayas and the Gouldian Finch of Australia were named after Elizabeth Gould (1804-1841), bird artist of the early 19th century. Elizabeth Gould married John Gould, also a famous taxidermist and bird artist of that time. She designed, lithographed, and painted over 640 plates for birds of the Himalayas, Europe, Australia, and Charles Darwin’s The Zoology of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, as well as other works. There is considerable controversy about the attribution of her works – John may have taken credit for work she had done, although she was clearly the sole artist on their first collection A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains. (Century here refers to the number of birds – 102- and not chronology.) John named the Gouldian Finch after her but with the name Gouldian, it could have been either of them. Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird was named after her by another ornithologist.

Elizabeth Gould
Gouldian Finch

In those days, the early 19th century, and centuries before, women did not get the recognition that men did, even though women of means were expected to develop talents such as singing, dancing, playing a musical instrument, and art. Even Queen Victoria dabbled was a minor artist, painting a portrait of her eldest son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, with a parrot, in 1843.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century when women were recognized for their avian art, such as Lilian Marguerite Medland (1880-1955) who illustrated Birds of Paradise and Bower Birds and Birds of New Guinea and Jessie Arms Botke (1882-1971), known for colorful tropical bird scenes. Later came Janet Turner (1914-1988) with her impressive silkscreen art. Hilary Burn (1946- ) illustrated many ornithological works, including 15 volumes of the Handbook of the Birds of the World and the Helm Identification Guides, and Elizabeth Butterworth (1949- ) who is known for her spectacularly detailed paintings of parrots.

But Elizabeth Gould stands out because she was on the cusp of the scientific illustration of birds. Earlier artists worked from dead specimens, resulting in paintings with birds in unnatural postures. Audubon, for example, used wire frames to mount dead birds, not always in a realistic position. Elizabeth Gould used dead Himalayan birds as models but her European birds were painted from life, either in the field or in a cage. By the time she painted Australian birds, shot by her husband, her skills had improved to the stage that she could make her bird paintings seem lifelike.

Rainbow Pitta

Today there are many bird artists, men and women, but two men appear to dominate the field – Roger Tory Peterson (1908-1996) and David Sibley (1961-), mainly because Peterson basically invented the format that most bird field guides use and Sibley has the most popular bird field guide of today. There are a number of bird field guides out besides those two, but many use photographs rather than painting, which I find inadequate, and there are no well-known women field guide artists. Hilary Burn is certainly capable of such a project.

It’s nice to note that of all the living bird artists listed on the Birding Art website, almost half are women.

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