Elizabeth Gould: A Natural History


On the morning of May 16, 1838, the hazy London skyline in darkness, Elizabeth Gould went into the bedroom of her daughters, Louisa, six months, and Eliza, a toddler, and kissed them in their sleep. She crept into the adjacent room to farewell her son, Charles, aged four, who in the following week would be sent to boarding school. Downstairs, drinking tea at the kitchen table and waiting to wish Elizabeth well, chatted her mother and a cousin. During the next couple of years, these women would be entrusted with the care of Elizabeth’s children while she studied the birdlife of Australia with her husband, John Gould.

The Goulds were motivated to voyage to the colonies by the prospect of making ornithological history. John resigned his position as Keeper and Stuffer of Birds with the Zoological Society to become a Corresponding Member, the coveted title given to explorers like Alfred Russell Wallace, William Swainson, Johann Natterer and other far-flung adventurers. Despite more than 50 years of settlement, a comprehensive inventory of Australia’s birdlife had not been attempted. For almost a decade Elizabeth and John had worked as a publishing team, producing 7 collections of superbly illustrated hand-coloured lithographs of birds from India, South America, Europe and the South Pacific. Elizabeth depicted the famous Galapagos finches Charles Darwin collected during his voyage on H.M.S. Beagle and ‘curious’ novelty species like the toucan and trogon.

Two thousand pounds, the equivalent 40 years of a naturalist’s annual salary, and all of the Goulds’ savings, were funnelled into the expedition. A cabinet maker fitted the two cabins they booked with customised shelving and writing desks. Rifles and ammunition were purchased and oiled, taxidermy tools selected, a camp stove bought to make hot chocolate, along with hogs hair and sable paint brushes, watermarked paper, quills with nibs of lark, goose and swan, pencils and crayons, expensive glass bottles to store wet specimens and tins of many sizes to pack the dried skins. Personal effects and luxuries like chocolate and novels were organised. And wages set aside for the three assistants the Goulds’ hired: John Gilbert, an experienced naturalist; James Benstead, a manservant, and Mary Watson, a ladies’ maid with experience working in India. Elizabeth and John also brought along their eldest son, John Henry, aged seven.

Despite Elizabeth’s composure in farewelling her children, at the commencement of the carefully prepared venture, her thoughts were troubled. A letter to one of John’s correspondents reveals her state:

It was Mr Goulds intention to have written to you again before leaving England but unhappily he was prevented from so doing by the sudden and severe indisposition of Mrs Gould which inducing the utmost fears for her safety, rendered it very doubtful up to the last moment whether they would be able to go or not and incapacitated him from attending to any but the most urgent matters of business. I accompanied them as far as the Downs by which time Mrs Gould was very much better[1].

The author was Edwin Prince, the couple’s secretary, who stayed behind in England to oversee the Goulds’ business affairs. Elizabeth was not being squeamish in her fears, there were endless risks in voyaging: mast-splitting storms; collisions and hull breaches; encounters with buccaneers; mortal fevers caught in foreign ports; and deteriorating health from limited exercise and a diet of fish, pork jerky and hard biscuit. Reached their Australian destination the party could hardly relax, as countless opportunities for misadventure awaited–bushfire, snakebite, dehydration, fever, losing one’s bearings, falling off a mountain, drowning, to name just a few. Elizabeth, who had survived several advanced term miscarriages and buried her first and third sons, knew there was a very real possibility she might not see her children again.

Their vessel, the Parsee, a triple-masted 350 tonne barque, was held up by extreme winds for 11 days in the Bay of Biscay, forty miles out of British waters, forcing the party to find their sea legs. And:

Our Doctor’s lady added a fine young Neptune to the ship’s company during some heavy weather while in the bay (Gould correspondence vol. 1 Sauer)

The Parsee dropped anchor on the island of Teneriffe for a night. John and his men disembarked to explore the hot interior of Santa Cruz, leaving Elizabeth and Mary to the cooler conditions of their berth. Sails unfurled, the barque skirted France and Spain, tacking the east coast of Africa where hundreds of medusas, or Portuguese man-o-wars, were seen floating in the waves, incandescent in the ship’s evening lights. The adventurers marvelled at flying fish, which moved across the ocean’s surface in a series of long leaps, like locusts. John wrote home that they were entertained by schools of porpoise and a pod of whales, mostly the Black species, but a single sperm whale was discovered amongst the group, scars on its side from battling a giant squid. They observed the crew fish, hauling up nets full of shark and turtles and enormous, exquisitely patterned molluscs and bi-valves. The sharks were hung upside down on the foredeck and drained of their fat, which was used as lamp fuel. After doubling the Horn of Africa the trade winds died back and the party lounged on deck, slapping at mosquitos and making fans of their novels, while above the sailors crawled about the rigging like crabs taking their afternoon exercise.

flying fishFigure 2. Study of flying fish, said to move like locusts, by Elizabeth Gould

Near the islands of Amsterdam and St Paul John convinced Captain McKellar to allow him to lower a rowboat into the becalmed sea. Gilbert and Benstead climbed aboard, raising their firearms to the flocks of frigatebirds, fulmars, albatross, storm petrels, petrels and shearwaters that drew near the ship, attracted by a tasty burley of offal and fat. On the foredeck, John utilised a system of knotted hooks and fishing line to capture the more inquisitive species. At that first musket crack Elizabeth lowered her book of verse and gathered up her drawing materials.  She tied on her painting apron and selected pencils and brushes, venturing above-deck for the opportunity to draw from life.

A series of watercolour paintings held in the Ralph Ellis Collection, at the University of Kansas, document preparatory studies Elizabeth undertook during the Goulds’ voyages two and from Australia. On-board the Parsee and Kinnear, Elizabeth drew and painted scores of pelagic species, many of which were new to ornithology. The drawings have been ripped and repaired; they’re grimed with use, and authenticated by a cursive ‘Mrs Gould’ scrawled in pencil, in the bottom right corner of the page. Most of the paintings include pencilled details of the ship’s precise latitude and longitude, important information for ornithologists, who as far back as the 1830s, were concerned with questions of range and distribution.

Picture Elizabeth, her bonnet tied on, paper clamped to her easel. Her skirt reaches to her ankles, the sleeves of her blouse cover her wrists. With one hand she mops at her sweating brow, with the other she sketches the outline of a pair of cape petrels, floating near the rowboat. Blood drips from the foregrounded bird’s partially open bill. Pelagic species such as petrels spend most of their lives on the wing, excreting salt from a tube above their bills. They can smell blood from great distances. The cape petrels were a gregarious tribe, venturing within several yards of the ship’s deck to take pork fat, their cries like the bleating of new lambs as they fought for morsels to eat. As a defence mechanism, their young squirted ‘foul-smelling oil’ from their beaks. For the first time in her artistic career, Elizabeth had the chance to make studies of living birds in their natural environments. According to an American botanist who visited Elizabeth while she stayed at her brother’s farm ‘Yarrundi,’ near Scone, she worked quickly at her sketches:

Mr. Coxen received us very politely and introduced us to his sister Mrs. G., to whose talent and industry the world is indebted for the celebrated Ornithological Illustrations. I had the pleasure of seeing the lady at her pencil, and was surprised at the rapidity of her execution[2].

spectacled petresFigure 3 Cape Petrel with blood from feeding Watercolour and pencil study by Elizabeth Gould

specuFigure 4. Spectacled Petrel study by Elizabeth Gould 1837

Elizabeth illustrated the spectacled petrel with blood pouring from the lower mandible of the foregrounded subject, its mantle and wings positioned to highlight the shape of its feathers, which are drawn in fine detail. Studies survive of Elizabeth’s sketches of the dove-like prion, the silver-grey petrel, the diving petrel, the short-tailed petrel, the blue petrel and others. Viewing the paintings, it’s apparent that certain features have been coloured, for instance, the specimens’ bills, eyes, facial markings and webbed feet. The correct shades of these ‘soft parts’ needed to be recorded immediately, because the colours of a bird’s eyes, feet, neck wattles and eye skin quickly fade after death. Hence, Elizabeth’s drawing of the dove-like prion indicates its sooty black bill and royal blue feet.


Figure 5. Dove-like Prion by Elizabeth Gould note the blue feet

On the other hand, the bird’s plumage, morphologically detailed on the sketches to show their outline and feather groupings, is uncoloured. It’s possible to add colour detail later; the plumage on a taxidermied specimen does not fade as dramatically as the ‘soft parts’, as long as it’s protected from sunlight. Note the sooty shearwater’s chocolate plumage in the photographs, and the flesh-coloured feet of the fresh specimen, which have faded to yellow in the preserved example.

Figure 6. Sooty Shearwater courtesy of Queensland Museum note the pink feet

Figure 7. Sooty Shearwater of Queensland Museum note the dried yellow feet

John wrote to the zoological society that Elizabeth enjoyed drawing and sketching on the Parsee.

One of the finest examples I possess [of the silver-grey petrel] was captured with a hook and line and thus afforded Mrs Gould an opportunity of making a beautiful drawing from life. (Handbook, 467-468)

He told of his discovery, using what can only be described as an early tagging method, of winding a band around certain species feet and releasing them back to sea, stunned when day after day, the tagged birds flew alongside the ship, travelling many hundreds of miles. He described an albino giant petrel that followed the Parsee for three weeks. Sadly, many of the pleagics John captured were not released back to the skies–particularly ‘novel’ or ‘curious’ species that hadn’t been encountered by science. Rather, they were bagged or netted by John and his team to be transformed into study specimens. Due to the mosquitos and flies brought by the humidity of the tropics, the bodies had to be converted into skins as quickly as possible.

James and John Gilbert transferred the bagged specimens to the makeshift stuffing room below-decks. The specimen, say a sooty shearwater, was placed on its back on a cloth, its wings tucked back. The downy belly feathers were parted to reveal the skin so than an incision could be made, from the middle of the breast all the way down to the cloaca, located at the beginning of the tail. Before removing the bones and ‘meat’, as John referred to the tissue in his letters, measurements were made of the specimen’s bill, wing and tail length, as well as its girth, so that when the body cavity was filled with flax and hemp and sewn shut, the proportions were correct. Otherwise the study skin might seem overly plump, or conversely, emaciated. The skin of seabirds is thick, making the process of removing the tissue easier than with other orders. Incisions were made between the shoulder and tibia joints and the top of the tail so the bone and flesh from the shoulder and pelvis area could be removed. In the field, nineteenth century ornithologists usually ate the muscle they scraped from the skins, though I have not found records of John Gould’s team eating the flesh of seabirds, which were said to have an unpleasant fishy taste. After most of the body had been lifted out, one of the wings was opened, and an incision made along the humerus and radius and ulna. The tissue surrounding these bones was cut away, the inside of the skin and bones scraped clean. An arsenical powder was then sprinkled on the skin, to protect it from infestations of lice and moths. Flax, called ‘tow’, was wrapped around the bones and the incision sewn up. Until the early 19th century, collections of skins in museums were unstable, moths and lice frequently destroying the feathers. A French apothecary discovered that using arsenic deterred insect infestation, although if the taxidermist had a cut or wound, the poison could enter his body, causing great discomfort. One of the trickiest steps in making a study skin is excising the tissue from the skull. The skin was turned inside out, and the flesh around the base of the skull scraped away. Although most of the skeleton was removed from a study skin, the skull was kept, as were the bones of the legs, tail, and wings. With great care the eyes were pulled from their sockets, so as not to damage the delicate eye rings, and a tool like a tiny ice cream scoop inserted into the hole to scrape out the brain. The eyes were replaced with glass eyes or wads of cottonwool. The tongue, important for classification, was cut out and steeped in alcohol for later study. When the entire skin was freed of flesh and cleaned, it was again sprinkled with arsenic powder, filled with hemp and flax and stitched up. The wings were folded behind the body, the legs crossed and tied with string and a tag that included field information and the species’ binominal name was added. The taxidermied skin was then set by a fire to dry and harden.

spFigure 8. Wilson’s Storm Petrel study skins courtesy of the Queensland Museum

Having made a study from life, Elizabeth was provided with a taxidermied specimen to aid her in accurately representing the species’ diagnostic features. With the skin at hand, she could examine in detail the feather groupings, and any special markings, adding these to her sketch. The preparatory drawings in the Ralph Ellis Collection show that several studies of each specimen were needed to create enough information to make a hand-coloured lithograph. Along with the composition of the foregrounded subject and background, the lithographic plate required detailed tonal shading of the species’ plumage. The finalised composition was then traced onto the lithographic stone, a limestone block dug from the Austrian quarry where the archaeopteryx was discovered. The slab was so porous that a fingerprint or droplet of water could mar the printed pull. However, this absorbent, organic quality rendered it the perfect medium to represent the delicate detail of feathers and skin. Once the design had been transferred onto the stone, it was washed in a weak acid mix and then coated with a greasy ink. Thick GSM paper, driven through a press, absorbed the impression. The studies that Elizabeth made on the Parsee show this initial step in the preparatory process of producing a hand-coloured plate. Since the plumage did not fade, separate studies were undertaken to detail the colours of the specimen’s feathers. Which is why in the drawing of the cape petrel, the chocolate and spotted cream of its coat is not indicated; nor the rich coffee plumage of the spectacled petrel. The final stage in the preparation of a hand-coloured lithographic plate was to make up a coloured ‘pattern’, where watercolour paints were added to the lithographic print. The ‘patterns’ were sent to the colouring firm the Goulds’ outsourced, the ‘hand-coloured’ features added to the black and white print.

The Goulds arrived in Hobart in September, 1838. They spent eighteen months in Australia, living with Sir John and Lady Franklin at Government House in Tasmania and with Elizabeth’s brothers, Stephen and Charles Coxen, in the upper hunter region in New South Wales. Gould made expeditions to procure specimens in Tasmania, New South Wales and South Australia while Gilbert headed to the settlement at Swan River, in Western Australia. At the conclusion of the venture, the collecting party had amassed thousands of specimens of Australian birds, their eggs and nests, and an impressive hoard of marsupial skins. Indeed, the Goulds attempted to import live birds and mammals to England, but with ill luck. Holed up in the Kinnear, the kangaroos, wallabies, wombats and koalas succumbed to the rough conditions of Cape Horn and the stultifying equatorial tropics. The buck kangaroo caught cold, the cockatoos fought through the bars of their cages, the koalas and wombats were soaked in sea water until their coats clumped stiff with salt. Elizabeth’s brother had gifted her 6 budgerigars, of which a pair survived, and, as history has it, the budgie was introduced to the English as a suitable bird to cage.


Figure 9. Elizabeth Gould with Red-footed Falcon. 1830s artist unknown

Elizabeth had farewelled her brothers, Charles and Stephen, and collected John Henry from boarding school. Voyaging on the Kinnear, still nursing a new-born son, Franklin Tasman, she continued to make sketches of pelagic species. The anticipation Elizabeth must have felt at being reunited with her children in London can only be imagined. In August 1840, the Goulds returned to their Broad Street terrace. Home, Elizabeth and John set to work, releasing the first part of The Birds of Australia, containing seventeen hand-coloured lithographs, just three short months after disembarking the Kinnear. Elizabeth’s fame as a pioneer ornithological illustrator spread, her artwork discussed in journal articles and newspapers. Ornithologists complimented her skills in their correspondence. Her portrait was taken in oils. Before John and Elizabeth Goulds’ luxury folios, few had used the technology of lithography to represent birds. William Swainson, a pioneer in the technique, failed to exploit its potential, his specimens represented in stiff, unimaginative poses. In The Birds of Australia Elizabeth illustrated species that unsettled the classification systems of the day; the newly-described mallee fowl, the intriguing brush turkey, the cryptic plains wander, an ancient species related to waders that has a family all of its own. She painted gorgeous parrots and honeyeaters, as well as shyer species such as the chirruping wedgebill. She depicted three species of the unique and ancient tree creeper, according to Tim Low’s Where Song Began, the closest living relative of the lyrebird, which Elizabeth also painted, the first artist to depict a female of this species, the world’s largest passerine.

Unfortunately, a year and a day after the Goulds’ return to England, nine months into The Birds of Australia’s eight year production run, Elizabeth Gould died suddenly of puerperal fever following the birth of her eighth (surviving) child. She was just 37. Bereaved, but needing to fulfil the promises made to his subscribers, John hired 18 year-old H. C. Richter to transform the 1000s of drawings, paintings and sketches Elizabeth had made in Australia, into lithographic plates, completing the work of The Birds of Australia in 1848.

The pelagic sketches Elizabeth created aboard the Parsee and the Kinnear were not released as lithographic plates until 1846, five years after their designer’s death. If it was not for the survival of the preparatory drawings in the Ralph Ellis Collection, the contributions Elizabeth made to this series would be forever lost. Of the 84 hand-coloured lithographic plates that Elizabeth Gould is authenticated as designing for The Birds of Australia[3]–her signature appears in the bottom left-hand corner of the lithographs–none are seabirds. It would be excusable if the sketches Elizabeth made were merely studies, reinterpreted into the final design of a lithograph, but instead these paintings and drawings have been copied directly onto the completed plate. John Gould and H. C. Richter elaborated the plumage colours at a later date, but, rather than acknowledge Elizabeth as the designer of the original compositions, the signatures at the bottom of the entire series acknowledge John Gould and H. C. Richter as the artists.

Mention ‘John Gould’, and most people recognise his connection to Australian zoology; in birding quarters he’s regarded as the ‘father’ of Australian ornithology. The contributions to the discipline of his wife, Elizabeth Gould, who worked as principal artist during the family firm’s first eleven years of operation, are less well-known. Had Elizabeth survived the birth of her daughter Sarah, her illustrations for the first comprehensive taxonomy of Australian birds to be published might have wider contemporary recognition. In the last several years, four books have been published which discuss John Gould’s contributions to Australia’s zoology[4], but not one of these titles attempts to overturn Elizabeth Gould’s neglected reputation. Rather, the myth of John Gould, the ‘savant’ birdman, endures.

This persona can be traced to John Gould’s tendency to draw attention to his activities and abilities at the expense of his highly skilled co-collaborators. With respect to Elizabeth Gould, there are numerous examples of John Gould’s self-promoting behaviour. Throughout their partnership, John signed his name to the artwork his wife produced, even though his roles–as taxonomist, taxidermist, publisher and writer–had little to do with the composition and design of lithographic plates. It is well-documented that John Gould’s artistic abilities were limited. His difficulties in drawing the basic outline of a bird is one of the reasons Elizabeth Gould came to his attention. Perhaps John thought he was protecting Elizabeth’s social status as a Victorian matron by signing his name to her works. Maybe he reasoned that his signature added prestige to his wife’s illustrations. Whatever John Gould’s motives, it’s clear that in collaborating with her husband in his publishing venture, Elizabeth Gould accessed a world of science and adventure denied the vast majority of the women of her class and time, despite their considerable training in drawing and painting.

[1] And a little later: “Mrs Goulds health is so much improved that he believes the Voyage will be the means of completely re-establishing it.” (267 Sauer Chronology Vol 1)

[2] Dr Pickering’s diary (kept during The United States Exploring Expedition under the command of Charles Wilkes 1839 5 December) 18. In Albrecht, Glenn and Jillian “The Goulds in the Hunter Region of N.S.W. 1839-1840 Naturae 2 (1992) 1-34

[3] The Birds of Australia (1840-1848) volumes 1 through 7 featured 600 hand-coloured lithographs of Australian bird species.

[4] Roslyn Russell, The Business of Nature: John Gould and the Birds of Australia (2011); Sean Dawes, John Gould: An Australian Perspective (2011); Sue Taylor, John Gould’s Extinct and Endangered Birds of Australia (2012); Fred Ford, John Gould’s Extinct and Endangered Mammals of Australia (2014).

First published in The Lifted Brow, republished in The Catamaran Literary Reader

2 thoughts on “Elizabeth Gould: A Natural History

  1. Can you please explain where the portrait of Elizabeth with the red falcon came from. The original portrait, a copy of which is in the National Art Gallery shows her in a different pose and with a cockatiel on her hand.


    1. Hi Raelene, Sorry, I missed your message. The portrait of Elizabeth with the red falcon is, I think, the original portrait of Elizabeth Gould, from which the cockatiel portrait, supposedly taken after she had died, was copied. I came across it in a magazine article about Elizabeth Gould in a library in Kansas. Both paintings are held in private collections in the Gould family, I think the red falcon portrait is in the UK. There is no record of when the paintings were made or who made them (at least as far as I can tell). The chapter in the novel of Elizabeth sitting for her painting is my imaginary recreation of the event. Hope this helps, best wishes, Melissa


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