Splendid Species

The interweaving of art, science and printing  reached a pinnacle in the creation of  The Birds of Australia (1840-1848). Its beautiful hand-coloured plates are regarded as among the finest examples of bird illustration ever published. 

The Library holds a number of copies of The Birds of Australia including an edition in the 36 parts as issued to subscribers.  The Library has recently digitised its most precious copy. This copy of The Birds of Australia is unique in the world as it is made up of the preliminary hand-coloured, lithographed plates before the printed titles were added. These “patterns” - or key plates - were used as prototypes to guide the army of colourists employed by ornithologist and publisher John Gould to transfer the hand-painted details onto the printed illustrations for the 250 copies of the seven-volume series in the original edition.

These lithographed patterns were printed on hard paper and are soiled and scuffed by paintbrush marks from repeated consultation and referencing; many include manuscript instructions for the colourists. Preparation of 84 of the key plates for the illustrations for The Birds of Australia was undertaken by Elizabeth Gould, who selected the pigments and brush sizes the colourists would use to replicate the hand-painted detail from the patterns onto the hundreds of copy prints.

 

The Birds of Australia

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The Emu

DROMAIUS NOVAE-HOLLANDIAE: Vol 6 plate 1 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4644479
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Wedge-tailed eagle - Eagle Hawk NSW colonists - Wol-dja - Aborigines of the mountain and lowlands district of Western Australia

AQUILIA FUCOSA: Vol 1 plate 1 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4648418
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Little Australian Eagle

ICHTHYIAETUS LEUCOGASTER : Vol 1 plate 3 of The Birds of Australia View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
IE4648418
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Whistling Eagle

HALIASTUR? SPHENURUS: Vol 1 plate 3 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4648418
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White-headed osprey - Yoon-door-doo: Aborigines of the lowland district of WA; Joor-joot: Aborigines of Port Essington  

PANDIONO LEUCOCEPHALUS: Vol 1 plate 6 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4648418
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New-Holland Goshawk, ASTUR NOVAE-HOLLANDE

ASTUR NOVAE-HOLLANDE: Vol 1 plate 14 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4648418
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Square-tailed kite- Ge-durn-mul-uk and Mar-arl Aborigines of mountain districts of WA

MILVUS ISURUS: Vol 1 plate 22 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4648418
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Owlet Nightjar

AEGOTHELES NOVAE-HOLLANDAE: Vol 2 plate 1 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4646384
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Great Brown Kingfisher - Laughing Jackass of the Colonists - Gogo-bera Aborigines of NSW 

DACELO GIGANTEA: Vol 2 plate 18 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4646384
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Piping Crow Shrike  (or Magpie)

GYMNORHINA TIBICEN: Vol 2 plate 46 The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4646384
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Butcher Bird - Wad-do-wad-ong, Aborigines of the lowlands districts of WA

CRACTICUS DESTRUCTOR: Vol 2 plate 52 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4646384
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Spangled Drongo

 

DICRURUS BRACTEATUS: Vol 2 plate 82 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4646384
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Shining Fly-catcher - Ung-bur-ka, Aborigines of Port Essington

PIEZORHYNCHUS NITIDUS: Vol 2 plate 91 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4646384
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Yellow-breasted Robin 

EOPSALTRIA AUSTRALIS: Vol 3 plate 11 of The Birds of Australia
1948
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4646585
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Davies - Pheasant of the Colonists of NSW - Beleck, Beleck and Balangara of the Aborigines 

MENURA SUBERBA: Vol 3 plate 14 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4646585
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Gouldian Finch (Poephila gouldiae) 

ERYTHRURA (CHLOEBIA) GOULDIAE: Vol 3 plate 88 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4646585
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Beautiful Grass-Finch


 

POEPHILA MIRABILIS: Vol 3 plate 89 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4646585
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Satin Bower-Bird, Cowry of the Aborigines of the coast of NSW

PTILONORHYNCHUS HOLOSERICEUS: Vol 4 plate 10 (double page) of The Birds of Australia
1948
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4645571
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Satin Bower-Bird, Cowry of the Aborigines of the coast of NSW

PTILONORHYNCHUS HOLOSERICEUS: Vol 4 plate 10 (double page) of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4645571
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Wattle-cheeked Honey-eater

 

PTIOTIS CRATITIUS: Vol 4 plate 38 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4645571
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Warty-faced Honey-eater

ZANTHOMYZA PHRYGIA: Vol 4 plate 48 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4645571
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Friar Bird

TROPIDORHYNCHUS CORNICULATUS: Vol 4 plate 58 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4645571
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Blue-faced Entomyza

ENTOMYZA CYANOTIS: Vol 4 plate 68 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4645571
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Pheasant Cuckoo - Mun-je-ree-woo: Aborigines of Port Essington 

CENTROPUS PHASIANUS: Vol 4 plate 92 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4645571
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Rifle Bird

PTILORIS PARADISEUS: Vol 4 plate 100 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4645571
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Leadbeater's Cockatoo - Jak-kul-yak-kul - Aborigines of the mountain of Western Australia

CACATUA LEADBEATERI: Vol 5 plate 2 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4647778
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Banksian Cockatoo

CALYPTORHYNCHUS BANKSI: Vol 5 plate 7 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4647778
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Gould - Adelaide Parrakeet

PLATYCERCUS ADELAIDAE: Vol 5 plate 22 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4647778
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Rose-hill Parrakeet

PLATYCERCUS EXIMIUS: Vol 5 plate 27 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4647778
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Gould - Australian Crane

GRUS AUSTRALASIANUS: Vol 6 plate 48 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4644479
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 Australian Mycteria - Barri-enna - Aborigines of NSW 

MYCTERIA AUSTRALIS: Vol 6 plate 50 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4644479
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Australian Mycteria - Barri-enna - Aborigines of NSW 

MYCTERIA AUSTRALIS: Vol 6 plate 51 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4644479
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Gould - Great Billed Heron - Maitch - Aborigines of Port Essington

ARDEA RECTIROSTRIS: Vol 6 plate 54 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4644479
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Black Swan - Mul-go Aborigines of NSW; Gol-jak Aborigines of Perth; Mal-lee Aborigines northward of Perth 

CYGNUS ATRATUS: Vol 7 plate 6 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4644025
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Membranaceous duck - Pink -eyed duck - Colonists of Swan river (ie. Perth) - Wrangi Aborigines of NSW + Wym-bin Aborigines of Perth

MALACORHYNCHUS MEMBRANACEUS: Vol 7 plate 13 of The Birds of Australia View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
IE4644025
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Cape Petrel 

DAPTION CAPENSIS: Vol 7 plate 53 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4644025
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Australian Pelican - Ne-rim-ba Aborigines in the neighbourhood of Perth; Boo-dee-lung Aborigines near the Murray

PELECANUS CONSPICILLATUS: Vol 7 plate 83 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4644025
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Crested Penguin

EUDYPTES CHRYSOCOME: Vol 7 plate 83 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4644025
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Gould - Crowned Wren

MALURUS CORONATUS: Supplement plate 39 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4644698
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 Magnificent Rifle Bird 

PTILORIS MAGNIFICA: Supplement plate 101 of The Birds of Australia View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
IE4644698
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Great Palm Cockatoo

MICROGLOSSUS ATERRIMUM: Supplement plate 123 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4644698
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Gould - The Princess of Wales Parrakeet

POLYTELIS ALEXANDRAE: Supplement plate 125 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4644698
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Gould - Bennett's Cassowary

CASUARIUS BENNETTI: Supplement plate 143 of The Birds of Australia
1848
John Gould
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Digital ID: 
IE4644698

John Gould (1804-1881) was one of the world’s most renowned experts in the study of birds and it was his devotion to the classification and description of around 200 new Australian bird species which established his professional reputation in the 1830s. Gould received no formal education, but was keenly interested in wildlife from an early age. In 1822, having worked as a gardener, he moved to London to take up taxidermy, then an increasingly lucrative trade. In 1827 he became the Curator and Preserver of the newly formed Zoological Society.

Gould was also a successful businessman who produced more than 40 published volumes during his lifetime, containing over 3,000 coloured plates, with The Birds of Australia considered to be his most famous work. Gould’s marriage to Elizabeth Coxen (1804-1841) in 1829 saw the beginning of a great collaborative partnership.

The 1830s was a period in which publishing, philosophy and the natural sciences were meeting in both middle-class English homes and entrepreneurial opportunity. Besides his talents as an ornithologist and entrepreneur, Gould’s ability to organise and oversee the output of artists and crafts people ensured the natural history artworks illustrating his prestige publications were brightly and skilfully coloured and of the highest quality. This approach held special appeal for their Victorian audience.

The plates of The Birds of Australia were printed using lithography – a relatively new technique for book illustration in England in the 1830s. Working from Gould’s rough sketches and under his constant supervision, the artists – including his wife Elizabeth Gould, Edward Lear, H.C. Richter, William Hart, and Joseph Wolf – made the drawings and watercolours which were then copied onto the lithographic stones from which the prints were produced. After the required numbers of prints were made the stones were wiped clean or destroyed to ensure the exclusivity of the prints.

The Birds of Australia was published in 36 parts issued four times a year (until 1847) with the last seven parts appearing in 1848. The cost of producing the prints was offset by subscription for the substantial fee of £115 (2017: £9,529.00 / AUD$16,885.00) which meant that only a few hundred of the wealthiest people and institutions in England, Australia and Europe could afford to own them. This also accounts for the rarity of this landmark publication to this day.

Gould in Australia

The Goulds came to Australia in 1838 with the expressed intention of recording the richly varied birdlife of the continent. Elizabeth’s brothers had emigrated some years earlier with Charles Coxen developing a strong taste for natural history. In 1834-5 Coxen travelled to the sparsely settled northern rivers district of New South Wales seeking specimens of birds and mammals which he sent back to England. This fired John Gould with the desire to see and collect such specimens for himself. Gould spent his Australian years travelling around the country, gathering field data, nests and specimens of every bird species then known - including 328 species new to science. He recorded his observations about each bird, along with its Latin name and various scientific citations, collecting historical and cultural anecdotes for many species including their colloquial colonial and indigenous names. Meanwhile, Elizabeth documented fresh and prepared specimens through thousands of sketches, carefully capturing the intricate colour, sheen and placement of each feather and eye:

… Mrs Gould … will execute the drawings herself, and they will be transmitted to England, and it is expected that a part will be published every two months … Every wealthy person in the Colony, who has the slightest pretention to be considered a man of taste, ought to subscribe … for the drawings alone, as mere works of art, apart from their scientific value, are worth treble the money asked for the whole work. (Sydney Morning Herald, 9 September 1839)

Gould was 'highly gratified' to be the first to record the extraordinary habits of the Satin Bower-bird (Vol 4 plates 10-11) including an illustration of their unusual thatched 'bower' structures - which he described as the bird's 'playing-ground or hall of assembly' - as one of the few double-sized plates found in The Birds of Australia.  Unsure about the bower's exact purpose at the time, it was later identified as being an essential element of the male's courtship ritual. Gould was also keen to promote the Lyre-Bird (Vol 3 plate 14) as the avian emblem of Australia, being 'not only strictly peculiar to Australia, [and], as far is yet known, to the colony of New South Wales ... perhaps no bird has more divided the opinion of ornithologists, as to the situation it should ocupy in the natural system ...' (Gould, 1848) 

The Goulds left Australia in April 1840 and the first part of The Birds of Australia appeared in December 1840. Elizabeth died in August 1841, following childbirth,  and before the completion of the project. The remaining 595 illustrations were finished by Henry Constantine Richter, a young artist who would work with Gould for the next forty years.

John Gould was devastated by his wife’s unexpected and untimely death, writing in the Preface to The Birds of Australia:

"At the conclusion of my “Birds of Europe,” I had the pleasing duty of stating that nearly the whole of the plates had been lithographed by my amiable wife. Would that I had the happiness of recording a similar statement with regard to the previous work; but such, alas! It is not the case, it having pleased he All-wise Disposer of Events to remove her from the sublunary world within one short year after our return from Australia, during her sojourn in which country an immense mass of drawings, both ornithological and botanical, were made by her inimitable hand and pencil "… (Gould 1840-1848, 25)

Gould named one of the most beautiful Australian species of finch - the Gouldian Finch- Erythrura (Chloebia) Gouldiae- after her:

"It was with feelings of the purest affection that I ventured, in the folio edition [Birds of Australia], to dedicate this lovely bird to the memory of my late wife, who for many years laboriously assisted me with her pencil, accompanied me to Australia, and cheerfully interested herself in all my pursuits."

After Gould’s death in 1881, his stock and the contents of his work rooms were purchased by London book dealer Henry Southeran. The "pattern" set of The Birds of Australia was acquired at an unknown date by the Technological College in Sydney and passed into the Library's collection in 1947. But just how such a significant resource for the study of the Gould's ornithological and artistic enterprise ended up in Australia remains a mystery.