I’m excited to be at the Queensland Museum today because it’s here that I discovered a treasure trove of incredible sources that helped me bring to life Elizabeth Gould, the heroine of my book, The Birdman’s Wife. Along with discovering the Museum’s archival materials, my association with the museum led to the opportunity to meet one of Elizabeth Gould’s descendants. So the museum’s a very special place to me.
John Gould, the famous 19th ornithologist, known worldwide as ‘The Birdman’ and ‘The Father of Australian Ornithology,’ is renowned for creating the most sublime hand-coloured lithographs of birds the world has ever seen. But few people know that his wife, Elizabeth Gould, acted as his principal artist during the first 11 years of the family business. It was Elizabeth who created more than 600 of the hand-coloured plates published in his luxury bird folios. Yet her legacy has been overshadowed by her husband’s fame. Not only did John Gould’s name feature as the author of the folios the couple produced, but he co-signed his name to all of Elizabeth’s plates. Hence, today, many people assume he was the artistic genius who brought so many amazing birds to life.
Although born in the early 1800s, in some ways Elizabeth’s experiences parallel those of women today. She can easily be related to, juggling a successful career, and taking up her roles as wife, business partner and mother to a brood of seven children. She was also a passionate adventurer and, despite her demanding and ambitious husband, came into her own as a successful artist. With great courage, Elizabeth defied the conventions of her time, parting from her three youngest children to join John on a two year expedition, voyaging from England to Australia to collect, study and describe our wonderful bird species.
At a time when the old world was obsessed with discovering and classifying the natural wonders of the new world, Elizabeth was as at its glittering epicentre. She worked alongside legends like Edward Lear and Charles Darwin — who was so impressed by her art works that he invited her to illustrate his famous Galapagos finches.
Yet, it’s only within books celebrating her husband’s life and works that Elizabeth can be found. And she’s usually portrayed as a shadowy figure, an assistant or supportive partner to her husband. At last, in The Birdman’s Wife I can tell her amazing story. While I have written a work of fiction, it is based on meticulous research. A feat that could not have been achieved without the help and dedication of organisations like the Queensland Museum.
Birds have always fascinated me as a writer, which over time, led me to a birdwatching hobby. This in turn created an interest in antique bird drawings and paintings. A friend loaned me a biography of John Gould, and it was within its pages that I first learned of his wife, Elizabeth. Her life gripped a hold of my writer’s imagination, and I started to delve further into her story.
The more I searched, the more I wanted to discover. I decided that my interest in Elizabeth’s extraordinary life would be shared by many readers, and so I enrolled in a PhD in creative writing, and set out to reimagine her as the narrator of the historical fiction, The Birdman’s Wife.
As with any such project, research was the most important first step and I spent months swamped in correspondence, diaries and biographies. But there came a time when I felt the need to connect in a more tactile way with Elizabeth’s world. Along with birdwatching and field trips to Tasmania and the Upper Hunter Valley, where the Goulds’ Australian expedition took them. I visited museums and libraries to view and handle original manuscripts, diaries and hand-painted lithographs. As part of my ‘field’ research, I took a behind-the-scenes tour of the Museum’s animal collections.
Curator, Heather Janetski showed me the vertebrate laboratory, where each Wednesday a group of dedicated volunteers gathers to prepare scientific study skins of marsupials and birds. I responded to this novel environment with pricked ears – it was rich ground for my writer’s imagination. At the conclusion of the tour, one of the volunteers challenged me to return the following week and try my hand at making a stuffed birdskin myself. Surprised at the suggestion, I thought about it and realised what a good idea it was, and signed up to become a Wednesday volunteer.
And so I submitted myself to the visceral task of preparing scientific study skins. When I arrived at the lab, I would tie on an apron, don rubber gloves and make my way to the stuffing kit that had been laid out like a fancy dinner setting on the long workbench. Like gleaming cutlery, neatly arranged at my place-setting was a toothbrush, Dacron (more commonly used to stuff mattresses), paper towels, cornflour, clamps, forceps, scalpel and bonecrusher. And the “meal” itself: a ziplock bag containing a thawed specimen dug out of the museum’s storage freezer. Slicing into skin, removing muscle and fat, separating joints and scraping ligaments from bone, with my hands and senses I learned the processes John Gould followed to prepare specimens for Elizabeth to sketch.
While removing the ‘meat’ of a barn owl or black-shouldered kite – which was how Gould’s stuffers referred to a specimen’s tissue – I was treated to entertaining stories of volunteers collecting road kill to bring to the museum for preservation, and dramas in the field involving somebody almost falling into a rotting whale carcass washed up on a beach. And, in one of those wonderful little miracles that occur when you least expect it, Jan a long-term volunteer, introduced me to a fellow member of her bookclub, Jenny Crawford, who was married to a descendent of Elizabeth Gould. Jenny and her husband Bruce, who sadly passed away recently, invited me to lunch at their home to share their personal collection of Gouldian treasures with me. They showed me photographs of the homestead ‘Yarrundi’, still standing, where Elizabeth stayed with her brother, Stephen Coxen, and which features so prominently in The Birdman’s Wife. They told me tales about their ancestor, Henry Coxen, who was nicknamed ‘Gammy Coxen,’ because of an injury to his hand, incurred in a shooting accident. Best of all, believing like me, that John Gould had taken his fair share of the limelight, they enthusiastically supported my project of bringing Elizabeth Gould’s life to light.
The Queensland Museum’s library treated me to an unforgettable experience of viewing one of their most precious folios. Their rare monograph of the trogan family contains one of the most beautiful hand-coloured lithographs Elizabeth produced, that of the resplendent quetzal. The quetzal forms a key scene in The Birdman’s Wife and also featured in its endpapers. If fact, it is so beautiful, Affirm Press turned it into a bookmark. The lithograph was highly unusual for its time, in that two folio-sized sheets were joined together in order to show off its magnificent tail. As you can see, Elizabeth’s hand-coloured lithograph does full justice to the quetzal’s bizarre, unforgettable form. Along with her incredible drawing, she used a technique of applying powdered metallic dust to the completed watercolour, to capture the iridescence of the quetzal’s plumage when caught in changing light.
In writing The Birdman’s Wife, I enjoyed portraying the exhilaration Elizabeth must have felt creating such a masterpiece. How impatient, how excited she must have been to share her exquisite plate with the bird aficionados who subscribed to the folios the Goulds’ produced.
As an extra treat, Heather Janetski retrieved a precious study skin of the resplendent quetzal from the museum’s zoological collection for me to photograph. The fragile specimen was collected in the 1870s, its faded field tag penned in a careful, flowing script. To prevent insect infestation, 19th century taxidermist’s used a lethal combination of arsenic and lead; thus in handling the skin, I had to wear gloves. I had the oddest sensation cradling the resplendent quetzal specimen, it felt as if I was nursing a days-old infant. Which relates in a lovely way to John Gould’s observation in the text accompanying Elizabeth Gould’s wonderful plate – that male and female quetzals are said to mewl across their forest canopies during mating season, making a sound like a newborn child.
For me, researching and writing Elizabeth Gould’s fictional memoir was a kind of archaeology. I had to uncover enough layers to feel confident to write the narrative of her interior emotional life. Two hundred years of analysis of John Gould and his contributions to ornithology and zoological illustration have created a luminous figure, a colossus even. But time and again, Elizabeth is consigned to his shadow. Biographical descriptions of Elizabeth represent her as her husband’s obedient servant or supportive wife. And, maybe because she lived in Victorian times, all sorts of passive qualities were projected onto the sort of person she might have been: delicate, polite, elegant and deferent. Indeed, a few of John Gould’s biographers’ even suggested that she sacrificed her very life following her husband’s pursuits. Actually, she died in childbirth. Perhaps, more than anything else, in writing The Birdman’s Wife, I set out to overturn these outdated notions. To me, Elizabeth Gould was a woman well-ahead of her time, a person many of us would like to befriend. She was tenacious, courageous, resilient, fiercely loving, talented and adventurous. And it’s high time the spotlight was turned on her adventurous life.
The girls: Many thanks to Cass Moriarty, Kali Napier and Taylor-Jayne Wiltshire for blogging and tweeting the event.