John Gould was born in Lyme Regis on the 14th September 1804. He was therefore just five years younger than Mary Anning and it seems extraordinary that these two children, born in our town at the same time in the humblest of circumstances should each grow up to become internationally recognised scientists in their own field. When John’s father went to register his son’s birth, under ‘occupation’ he simply wrote ‘poor’. He was in fact one of the under gardeners for Lady Poulett, who lived in Poulett House, now the Alexandria Hotel.
John’s first memory was of being lifted up by his father to peer into a hedge sparrow’s nest. He later wrote that he saw ‘four eggs blue as the sky and from that moment I became enamoured of nature.’
The country was enjoying a period of affluence. The growth of a middle class with wealth and leisure meant the growth of hobbies. There was a great interest in nature. People pressed flowers and grasses and seaweeds, they pinned butterflies and beetles and blew birds’ eggs for their collections. Some also collected the birds themselves. Young John Gould not only knew where to find the birds and their nests, he also became adept at preserving the tiny corpses.
When John was still a lad his father got a new job in the royal gardens at Windsor and the family moved with him. Queen Charlotte was fond of salads and John made it his job to bring her choice to the kitchens each day. He also became known to the king, who had a menagerie of animals that had been presented to him. By the time he was nineteen he had been appointed the Royal Taxidermist. The largest job he had to undertake was to stuff a giraffe. The Pasha of Egypt had presented a giraffe each to the King of France and the King of England. The French giraffe was landed at Marseilles and had to walk to Paris. This seemed to do it no harm and it lived for another eighteen years. But the one sent to George IV came round by sea and must have had a fall or caught a cold on its journey for it was never a happy giraffe. There were cartoons in the papers of a sad king gazing sorrowfully at his giraffe suspended in a sort of hammock. Anyway it died and John Gould stuffed it. Gould was always good at making his mark with the right people.
The second book that he eventually published was dedicated to the Provost of Eton, who, he wrote,’had noticed and encouraged my early efforts’. It seems extraordinary to me again that the Head of Eton whose job it was to look after a schoolful of sons of the aristocracy should have had time for the son of a gardener in Windsor. John Gould had something.
In 1826 The Royal Zoological Society was founded with a museum and offices in Bruton St. and a plot of land in Regent’s Park for any living animals that it might acquire. The first Curator was John Gould aged 23. You could say that he was the first curator jointly of the Natural History Museum and the Zoo. He had a secretary, Edwin Prince, who stayed with him for forty years, and a flat over the museum.
In 1829 he married Elizabeth Coxon in St. James’s Piccadilly. She was a young lady who came regularly to draw the items in the collection.
It was a period when Englishmen and women were travelling to all parts of the world and many of them sent back birds and other fauna to the new museum for John to identify and catalogue and name. He was very struck with the beautiful drawings of parrots that Edward Lear was making by a new process called lithography. Hitherto illustrations of birds had been by woodcuts or etchings, black and white and rather stiff and unnatural. This new process, which involved taking copies from paintings in oils on slabs of stone, produced freer pictures in vivid colours. John decided to learn the process from Edward Lear, whom he persuaded to come and work for him, and to publish his own bird books. He had been sent a consignment of birds by someone travelling in India and Nepal and these would be the subject of his first book, which he dedicated, by permission, to the King and Queen. When Elizabeth asked him ‘Who will do the pictures on stone’ he replied ‘Who, why you my dear. The book was titled ‘A Century of Birds Hitherto unfigured from the Himalaya Mountains’. It was an immediate success, the must-have book for all noble houses and university libraries, with its huge plates in vivid colour.
Gould then travelled widely through Europe calling on contacts and making field trips and between 1832 and 1833 produced ‘Birds of Europe’ in five volumes. He did the original rough drawings which were then worked up by Edward Lear and Elizabeth. Prince Charles Bonaparte, the great French ornithologist called it ‘The most beautiful work on ornithology that has ever appeared in this or any other country’. Audobon, The American ornithologist, visited Gould and described him as ‘rich and famous’.
In 1836 the Beagle returned from its epic voyage and Charles Darwin brought the specimens he had collected to Gould to be catalogued, identified and, in some cases, named. John Gould then produced the official record, ‘Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle’ illustrated with fifty plates taken from sketches made by Mr Gould himself and executed on stone by Mrs Gould’. Darwin was then at the start of his career and hadn’t been able to identify all that he had found. He had only classified six of the thirteen now famous Galapagos finches as finches. One he had called an oriole, another a warbler. Gould realised that they were all finches but had developed different characteristics because of the variety of conditions and food sources available on the separate islands. He read a paper to the RZS on what he called ‘the transmutation of species.’ Darwin later wrote that hearing Gould speak ‘was the moment of my conversion.’ It confirmed what he had himself had been groping towards. Twenty three years later after much research and study he published ‘The Origin of Species’.
Perhaps inspired by Darwin’s accounts of his travels, Gould then decided on a long voyage himself. In 1838 he set off for Australia, taking with him Elizabeth, to do the illustrations, an assistant, John Gilbert, his oldest son, aged 7, a young nephew, two servants and a ladies maid. Charles Darwin gave him a leaving present of a silver compass. Never one to be idle, Gould managed to shoot or hook thirty five new species of birds during the voyage. When they landed, he and Gilbert separated and each hired aborigine guides. They penetrated the bush, travelled up the rivers, visited the islands and the desert, constantly crating and despatching the birds they found back to Edwin Prince in London. Their three youngest children had been left with grandparents and while John’s letters home were all about nature, Elizabeth was writing ‘can baby walk yet?’ While they were staying with Sir John and Lady Franklin in Tasmania, Elizabeth gave birth to their seventh child (two had died in infancy). They named him Franklin Tasman Gould. When they returned they brought with them a cage of the little colourful birds that had particularly delighted them and so were responsible for introducing the budgie and the cockatiel to England.
Altogether 328 species new to science were named by Gould in Australia. His ‘Birds of Australia’ in seven volumes remains the most valuable and desirable work ever produced on the subject. Just as the bird society in America is called the Audobon Society, so that in Australia is named after Gould. He also wrote ‘Mammals of Australia’ and a monograph on Kangaroos.
In 1841 Elizabeth, died aged 37, giving birth to their eighth child. Thereafter his illustrations were finished by Richter, Hart and Wolf. Gould’s next passion was hummingbirds. He engaged native hunters with blowpipes to collect and send him specimens from all over the world and in 1841 he published a beautiful book, using a method he had devised of painting over gold leaf to create an impression of their shimmering colours. He amassed a huge collection of these birds and in 1851 for the Great Exhibition he exhibited 1500 specimens suspended on silver wires in a hugeglass case in Regent’s Park. Queen Victoria went to see this several times and wrote in her diary ‘It is impossible to imagine anything so lovely as these little humming birds.’ He visited America in 1857, met the Presidentand had the thrill of seeing his first living humming bird.
‘Birds of Asia’ was published between 1850 and 1883 and his five volume ‘Birds of Great Britain’ between 1862 and 1873. For this the list of subscribers was headed by twelve monarchs, eleven royal highnesses, 16 dukes, 30 earls and countless universities, libraries, etc . It was said of him that he had ‘a brilliant natural talent for the recognition of new species characteristics in birds and an ability to capture field character in sketches which none could rival.’ John Gould died on February 3rd, 1881. On his tombstone it simply says ‘John Gould, The Birdman.’ Shortly before his death, Sir John Millais, then President of the Royal Academy, visited him and found him in bed surrounded by grandchildren to whom he was talking about a bird he was holding. Millais painted a picture ‘The Ruling Passion’ based on that scene, which was the highlight of the Summer Exhibition.
In his life John Gould produced more than forty folio volumes with over three thousand coloured plates. His works now sell for enormous sums. One recently was sold by Lawrence’s of Crewkerne for £35,000.Sadly they are often broken up and the pictures sold separately. When David Attenborough opened the refurbished Lyme museum in 1999 he said ‘Few of us who remain his devoted public a century after his death can hope to own one of his massive sumptuous volumes complete.’ It seems sad that in the town of his birth, John Gould is not better remembered.