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John Gould

The Bird Man

Gouldian Finches as Illustrated by Elizabeth Gould


John Gould (1804-1881) is the most famous British Ornithologist, having created and published over 3000 Studies and Paintings of Birds! 


Sketch of John Gould by Marion Walker

John Gould was born in Lyme Regis, Dorset, England.  He was the oldest son of a gardener who worked his way from gardener at a rural home, to a Surrey Estate, and finally in 1818 when he became a foreman in the Royal Gardens of Windsor. John often accompanied his father to work his classrooms were the fields and gardens and the birds and animals that inhabited them. The Royal Gardener J. T. Aiton, took an interest in John, mentoring and training him as a gardener from 1818 through 1824.  During this time Gould started teaching himself the art of taxidermy. He skills progressed and he became very accomplished in the art. 


Azure Kingfisher

In 1824 John opened a shop in London as a taxidermist. As his reputation for detailed and excellent work grew, he made good contacts within the scientific community.  John Gould’s work and his contacts helped him to become the first Curator and Preserver at the Museum of the Zoological Society of London in 1827.

Rust-Coloured Bronzewing

As Gould's work and acclaim grew, he interacted with Great Britain’s leading naturalists. He was often the first to see new collections of birds given to the Zoological Society of London. In 1830 a collection of birds arrived from the Himalayas, many of which had not previously described.  Gould created and headed a team that included an illustrator-artist and a writer.  The first title Gould’s group published was "A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains" (1830–1832). The text was written by Nicholas Aylward Vigors, and the illustrations were lithographed by Gould's wife Elizabeth,  an accomplished and gifted artist.


 Monal Himalayan Pheasant

 Most of Gould's work were rough sketches on paper from which other artists, such as his wife, created the lithographic plates.  As you can see below, his own drawing abilities were nothing to write home about, so he relied heavily on his wife and others to do the detail work for him. 


Sketch Drawn by John Gould

Same Sketch as Finished by his Wife Elizabeth

Gould was a genius at documenting and detailing birds and animals, but could he draw?  Not very well!  Gould and his team gave the world thousands of lithographs of birds, yet according to The University of Glasgow, Gould’s skill was in rapidly producing rough sketches from nature; many of the 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 finished drawings, which were made into colored lithographs by engravers.

John Gould’s team worked well together and they published an impressive number of books.  Gould followed "A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains" with four more studies and titles in the next seven years, including "The Birds of Europe", which was five volumes, completed in 1837. Gould wrote the text, and his clerk, Edwin Prince, did the editing. Some of the illustrations were made by Edward Lear as part of his Illustrations of "The Family of Psittacidae" in 1832.

Crested Hoopoes

One of the unique characteristics of Gould’s books is that they were published in a very large size, Imperial Folio, with magnificent colored plates. Eventually 41 of these volumes were published, with about 3000 plates. Most volumes were subscribed for in advance by buyers and Institutions and they were created and released in parts as they were completed. 

Joel Oppenheimer Gallery, Chicago, Debuts The Family of Hummingbirds: The Complete Prints of John Gould

These magnificent collections were very costly, mostly because of the preparation of the plates.  While these were risky, Gould succeeded in making his ventures pay and he earned a fortune. During this busy period, Gould also published "Icons Avium" in two parts, containing 18 lithographs of bird studies on 54cm plates as a supplement to his previous works.

Red Naped Trogon


John Gould and Charles Darwin

When Charles Darwin presented his mammal and bird specimens collected during the second voyage of HMS Beagle to the Zoological Society of London in 1837, the bird specimens were given to Gould for identification. He set aside his paying work and at the next meeting of the society he reported that birds from the Galapagos Islands which Darwin had thought were blackbirds, "gross-bills" and finches, were in fact "a series of ground Finches which are so peculiar" as to form "an entirely new group, containing 12 species." This story made the newspapers. In March, Darwin met Gould again, learning that his Galapagos "wren" was another species of finch and the mockingbirds he had labelled by island were separate species rather than just varieties, with relatives on the South American mainland. Subsequently, Gould advised that the smaller southern Rhea specimen that had been rescued from a Christmas dinner was a separate species which he named Rhea Darwinii, whose territory overlapped with the northern rheas. Darwin had not bothered to label his finches by island, but others on the expedition had taken more care. He now sought specimens collected by captain Robert Fitzroy and crewmen. From them he was able to establish that the species were unique to islands, an important step on the inception of his theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Gould's work on the birds was published between 1838 and 1842 in five numbers as Part 3 of Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, edited by Charles Darwin.



John and Elizabeth Gould

While Gould was establishing his professional life, his personal life was changing and growing. In 1824 Gould met Elizabeth Coxen, a 24-year-old governess.  Their first child, a son also named John, was born almost exactly nine months after their wedding; sadly, he died in infancy. The couple would go on to have seven more children, six of whom would survive until adulthood. According to The Australian Museum “John Gould couldn’t have picked a wife more perfectly suited to his career ambitions. Elizabeth was patient, hard-working, loyal, obedient – and most importantly, brimming with untapped artistic talent."

Portrait of Elizabeth Gould (1804–1841); She is holding an Australian cockatiel artist unknown

This was a quality that John himself sorely lacked. In the first few years of their marriage, John Gould engaged Elizabeth’s drawing skills in his correspondence with his fellow naturalists. In 1830, after a delivery of bird skins from the Himalayan Mountains was delivered to the Zoological Society, John Gould entrusted his wife with the creation of the plates for his first folio publication: "A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains". Elizabeth Gould learned the technique of lithography to execute John Gould’s vision for the work, assisted by Edward Lear, the ornithological artist and nonsense poet.


Indian Treepie

The Gould’s sailed together to Australia, where they spent from 1838 to 1840. John participated in numerous collection expeditions looking for rare and undiscovered species. They returned home to England in May 1840.

The result of the trip was The Birds of Australia (1840–1848). It included a total of 600 plates in seven volumes. There were 328 new species identified, described, and detailed by Gould. He also published "A Monograph of the Macropodidae Or Family of Kangaroos" and 3 volumes about the Mammals of Australia.

Kangaroos-Macropus Ocydromus

Other works published by Gould include "A Monograph of the Trochilidae or Hummingbirds" with 360 plates (1849–61), Handbook to the Birds of Australia (1865), The Birds of Asia (1850–83), The Birds of Great Britain (1862–73) and The Birds of New Guinea and the adjacent Papuan Islands (1875–88).



John Gould had a long and productive life as a scientist and naturalist. His work provided a rich impressive legacy of his bird and animal monographs and lithographs. He made solid contributions to science as well, writing more than 300 scientific articles.  His work with Charles Darwin played a significant role in the development of the theory of evolution. With Gould’s help, Darwin was able to demonstrate that species of birds on the Galapagos Islands were like those specimens collected in South America, which led to the concept of divergent evolution, whereby isolated populations can become new species. 

A visit to Gould in his old age provided the inspiration for John Everett Millais's painting "The Ruling Passion".




To Bring Home the importance of the contributions John Gould made to scientific community and to the people of the United Kingdom the UK’s culture minister Caroline Dinenage placed a temporary export ban on two unique John Gould albums. The two Morocco-bound folios subject to the current ban contain 129 drawings and watercolors and four unpublished lithographic proofs by Gould, his wife Elizabeth, and the pre-eminent artist Henry Constantine Richter. They have been valued at £1,287,500 ($1.8 million) and are considered by the UK government to be vital for understanding not only more about how Gould worked but also how Victorians attempted to catalogue and define flora and fauna across the world.


“There is much still to be discovered, bibliographically but particularly from the standpoint of the history of science, about these often beautiful but above all honest drawings, by one of this country’s greatest ever ornithologists and his talented wife. The drawings sometimes differ in important details from the artistic lithographs derived from them, but they are perhaps most significant as being amongst the earliest accurate western depictions of non-European birds, some now extinct. They should be retained in this country so that they can be researched not only from an artistic and bibliographical perspective but above all in the context of Gould’s correspondence and the specimens, also gathered by John Gould, held by British institutions,” stated Peter Barber, a member of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest. The decision to provide an export license for the volumes has been deferred until at least September 24. The ban may be extended until January 2022 if “a serious intention to raise funds to purchase it is made at the recommended price,” according to a statement released by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport.

Gould prints are in great demand and collectible. The Wassenaar Zoo sale at Bonhams in 2018, Gould’s Birds of Australia was the top lot at then $248,997. His final work, The Birds of New Guinea and the Adjacent Papuan Islands, completed after his death by Richard Bowdler Sharpe, set an auction record at $136,118. His Mammals of Australia sold for $96,279 and Birds of Asia sold for $91,299.

The Gould League, founded in Australia in 1909, was named after him. This organization gave many Australians their first introduction to birds, along with more general environmental and ecological education. One of its major sponsors was the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union.

 In 1976 he was honored on a postage stamp, bearing his portrait, issued by Australia Post. In 2009, a series of birds from his Birds of Australia, with paintings by H C Richter, were featured in another set of stamps.



John Gould has had many animals and birds named in his honor.

Gould's petrel (Pterodroma leucoptera)

Gould's shortwing (Brachypteryx stellata)

Gould's frogmouth (Batrachostomus stellatus)

Gould's jewelfront (Heliodoxa aurescens)

Gould's inca (Coeligena inca)

Gould's toucanet (Selenidera gouldii )

Dot-eared coquette (Lophornis gouldii )

Olive-backed euphonia (Euphonia gouldi )

Two species of reptiles are named in his honor: Gould's monitor (Varanus gouldii) and Gould's black-headed snake (Suta gouldii).

Gould's sunbird, or Mrs. Gould's sunbird, (Aethopyga gouldiae) and the Gouldian finch (Erythrura gouldiae) were named after his wife.