Gould's Monumental The Birds of Europe, With Lear's Exquisitely Rendered Plates of RaptorsJohn Gould. The Birds of Europe. London: Richard and John E. Taylor, [1832-] 1837. Five imperial folio volumes measuring 21.5 x 14.25 inches each. 449 hand-colored illustrations on 448 lithographed plates printed by Charles Hullmandel. Majority of the plates by Elizabeth Gould from sketches by Gould, with the remainder by Edward Lear. With all title pages, dedication page, preface, introduction, and subscriber's list present. Bound in contemporary full green morocco with rich decorative gilt-stamped ornamentation and borders by Hering with his stamp. Spine in six compartments with gilt-stamped borders, decorations, and titles. Gilt-rolled edges and rich inner dentelles. All edges gilt. Covers lightly rubbed and with some wear to edges and extremities. Spines somewhat faded with ends and joints a bit worn. Some shelfwear to corners and bottom edges. Interiors generally clean with scattered instances of mostly marginal foxing and occasional offsetting of images. Plates otherwise clean and with bright color and detail throughout. Volume one with the armorial bookplate of Algernon Peckover and the verso of the front free endpaper bearing the name of William Peckover, 1842 and a small tipped-in catalog clipping. Slight bumping to bottom of block of Vol. IV, barely affecting corner. First gathering of Vol. V slightly overopened with the list of plates with a wrinkle down the middle. A magnificently bound set with wonderful hand-colored plates by the British ornithological master.
In the spring of 1832, the eighteen year-old Edward Lear abandoned his self-published Illustrations of the family of Psittacidae or Parrots with the publication of Part XII of a planned XIV parts. The remainder of the stock was then purchased by taxidermist and bird-man John Gould, who had originally planned to complete the work, but ended up never doing so. The forty-two parrots which comprise this first book by Lear were also the first hand-colored folio size lithographs to be produced in England. As Lear had the foresight to oversee production and distribution of the work to his subscribers, he can hardly be blamed for the premature conclusion of his first work. Nevertheless, he had achieved notable success, "recognition of his talents, and employment for himself for some time to come." Gould was currently involved in a similar project with his A Century of Birds... (with the twenty monthly parts having completed in August 1832). As he had failed to find a publisher for his own folio-sized plates, he reluctantly took on the role of publisher himself; one he would revisit for the remainder of his publishing career.
Where Lear had struggled with the business side of art, Gould had managed to turn a profit with A Century of Birds..., choosing to focus on the solicitation of his subscribers and production, leaving the lithography to Mrs. Gould, who was working from both of their drawings. According to Lear's letters, he was already working with the Goulds by this time, aiding with the transferring of drawings to the lithography stones, as well as assisting with the drawing of various details of flora in the foreground. Even as there was no acknowledgement of Lear's contribution to the plates, they had taken on a similar spare formality with no backgrounds, focusing solely on the life-size portraits of the birds.
Shortly after the book's completion, Gould and Lear embarked on a tour to Western Europe visiting museums and zoos, making drawings and plans for what would become The Birds of Europe. Lear had committed to seeing the project through to its completion, which would eventually be issued in twenty-two parts over six years. With Lear now reproducing the larger bird plates (most notably the raptors, owls and cranes) and the well-respected printer Charles Hullmandel assisting with the production, Gould's approach for composing and producing his folio plates was quickly evolving into a known formula. That is, until you look closely at the work of Lear.
His drawings, lithography, and watercolor application--with particular attention to his differing use of line--render the bodies of his subjects in shadowy volumetric detail with spare crosshatching ushering in the background and foreground. Contrasted to the blue background washes and simple colored foregrounds of Mrs. Gould, Lear's deftness of technique is applied to all aspects of the composition, not least of all, his great subject.
With the majority of the birds depicted by Lear, their posture and gaze reflect a certain knowing, as if they're almost aware of their portraits being produced. The sheen of the feathers and the reflection within their eye - achieved by an opaque watercolor technique utilizing touches of egg-white - also add a distinctive depth and vitality to each subject. And considering Lear's eventual success as a well-known author of nonsense verse and limericks, it's rather difficult not to detect a distinct air of humor amid the poise and elegance of their individual statures.
In total, this stunning collection of "Gould's Plates"- as they are now known -represent a great confluence of artistry, technique, and production that is unparalleled, except by Audubon. As Gould went on to produce fourteen imperial folio size books in all-in forty-one volumes-with almost 3,000 hand-colored plates, he indisputably set the standard for those who followed. After completing Birds of Europe, Gould went on to study and illustrate many newfound species and unexplored regions, including the birds of Australia, Great Britain, Asia, New Guinea, and perhaps most famously, as a traveller on Darwin's voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle. Along with an ever-changing team of artists, Gould produced some of the most desirable hand-colored natural history books of the nineteenth century, maintaining a high quality of production, illustration, and distribution while often working as author, editor, and salesman as well.
Within these particular volumes, certain anthropomorphic qualities consistent in Lear's illustrations set them apart from the proficient and metered line of the Goulds. It is probably the same glimmer of recognition Gould himself first noticed, something he thought he might try to possess for his own devices before Lear's estimable talent ventured off in search of something altogether nonsensical (Jackson).
Ayer/Zimmer 251. Hyman, Lear's Birds, p. 45. Jackson, Bird Illustrators, p. 32-58. Nissen, IVB 371. Sauer 2. Sitwell, Fine Bird Books, 1700-1900, p. 33-35, 40, 101.
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