What is The Birds of Great Britain?

The Birds of Great Britain by John Gould

John Gould’s The Birds of Great Britain (1862-1873) represents a development of an aesthetic style in which illustrations of nests and young are added on a large scale.

Gould (1804-1881) published the collection himself, producing 750 copies, in 25 parts. As the complete work included 367 illustrations, all hand colored, this was a huge undertaking.

Over two hundred thousand hand colored illustrations

Great Crested Grebe Plate 038 by John Gould – Birds of Great Britain Volume 5, the Natatores. Museum quality giclee print. Facsimile Giclee
Great Crested Grebe, Volume 5

In the introduction to the collection, Gould writes: “[…] every sky with its varied tints and every feather of each bird were colored by hand; and when it is considered that nearly two hundred and eighty thousand illustrations in the present work have been so treated, it will most likely cause some astonishment to those who give the subject a thought.”

There also were problems: the stone engraving of the Snowy Owl was dropped and broken at an early stage in the printing. Later issues of this plate show evidence of this damage and consequently the early issue – printed before the accident – are considered more desirable.

Gould's print artists

Sketch by John Gould. Birds of Great Britain.
Rough sketch by John Gould
John Gould. Birds of Great Britain. Museum quality Giclee Print
Moorhen by Joseph Wolf

This preparatory sketch for the Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) in The Birds of Great Britain is attributed to John Gould. The image has been hastily sketched on the back of an old board and is perhaps Gould’s first attempt at communicating his rough composition. Josef Wolf provided the finished illustration.

The majority of Gould’s rough sketches were drawn from newly killed specimens capturing the distinctiveness of each species. Gould then oversaw the process whereby his artists worked his sketches up into the finished drawings, which were made into colored lithographs by engraver William Hart.

The artist Henry Wolf drew 57 of the plates from Gould’s preparatory sketches. Gould’s more famous print artists were Joseph Wolf, Henry Constantine Richter and William Hart. Besides illustrators Richter and Hart also were Gould’s lithographers.

Henry Wolf

Henry Wolf (1852-1916) was a French-born wood engraver who lived and worked in the United States during his most influential work period and until his death.

Joseph Wolf

Joseph Wolf (1820-1899) was a German artist who specialized in natural history illustration. He would become Gould’s long-term collaborator. Gould admired Wolf and would have liked him on his staff, but Wolf only contributed illustrations on a freelance basis. Wolf thought of Gould as a shrewd and uncouth man. He also noted that Gould lacked a knowledge of feather patterning, apart from knowing nothing about composition, with a tendency to add too much color, claiming that specimens in the wild were brighter.

Gould - The Birds of Great Britain Volume I - Golden Eagle - Museum quality giclee print
Golden Eagle by print artist Joseph Wolf

Henry Constantine Richter

Henry Constantine Richter (1821-1902) was an English zoological illustrator who produced a very large number of skillful colored lithographs of birds, mainly for the scientific books of John Gould. The working relation between Richter and Gould lasted for forty years, until Gould died in 1881.

William Matthew Hart

William Matthew Hart (1830-1908) was an Irish-born English bird illustrator and lithographer who mainly worked for Gould. He began working for Gould in 1851, beginning an association that was to last thirty years. By 1970 Hart had become Gould’s chief artist and lithographer.

The Birds of Great Britain consists of 5 volumes

In the arrangement of the birds in the 5 volumes Gould writes in his introduction “[…] we have classed and subdivided the groups […] after the plan proposed by Mr. Vigors.” 

Gould - The Birds of Great Britain Volume I - Short-eared Owl - Museum quality giclee print
Short-eared Owl. Volume 1: Raptores

Volume 1 comprises the Raptores. According to Gould this includes the ‘large tyrants of the air’: the eagles, the falcons, the owls, and the vultures. 

Volume 1 includes 37 plates. 

Long-tailed Tit Young Plate 029 by John Gould – Birds of Great Britain Volume 2, the Insessores. Museum quality giclee print. Facsimile Giclee
Long-tailed Tit with young. Volume 2: Insessores
Tawny Pipit John Gould. Birds of Great Britain Volume 3 Insessores. Giclee Print
Tawny Pipit. Volume 3: Insessores

Volume 2 and 3 comprise the Insessores or the perching birds. Gould includes the swallow, the woodpeckers and other birds living between the branches of the trees and in the air. 

Volume 2 includes 77 plates and volume 3 includes 72 plates. 

John Gould. Birds of Great Britain Volume 4 Insessores. Giclee Print
Common Crane Volume 4: Rasores and Grallatores

Volume 4 comprises the Rasores and the Grallatores. These birds live mainly on the ground, like the pigeon, the pheasant, partridge, grouse, but also partly in the water, like the crane, heron, stork, sandpiper and gallinula, according to Gould. 

Volume 4 includes 94 plates. 

Merganser Plate 035 by John Gould – Birds of Great Britain Volume 5, the Natatores. Museum quality giclee print. Facsimile Giclee
Merganser. Volume 5: Natatores

Volume 5 comprises the Natatores, or swimming bird: the ducks, grebes, divers, auks, pellicans and gulls. 

Volume 5 includes 87 plates. 

Teylers Museum

Taken from the original illustrations in the libraries of Teylers Museum in the Netherlands, the collection The Birds of Great Britain (1862-1873)  contains 367 prints after the hand-colored originals.