John Gould, a rare bird indeed
Baljit Singh

The Bird Man
by Isabella Tree.
Ebury Press, Rupa & Co. Pages 324, £ 4.55.

Red-billed blue magpie
Red-billed blue magpie (Cissa erythrohyncha). Painted by John Gould and Henry C. Richter. The Birds of Asia, parts 13-18, 1861-66.

JUST as a believer does not feel fulfilled until he beholds whatever be his Mecca, similar is the pull with lovers of nature to simply hold the first edition or any book by John Gould. His books comprised full-page illustrations of a bird or a mammal so incredibly life-like and with such vibrant colours that you anticipate it would fly off the page any moment.

When John Gould passed away on February 3, 1881, at the age of 76, he was the undisputed illustrator and publisher of the most magnificent and extant work on birds ever created: 15 definitive books, 16 significant monographs with about 3,000 full-page plates in colour covering birds of Australia, the Pacific Islands, Asia, the Himalayas, Europe, Great Britain and the Americas.

On the periphery, when he momentarily broke free from birds, his two publications on mammals (A Monograph on Kangroos and the more definitive The Mammals of Australia) were received with equal acclaim. John Gould was also among the greatest of pioneers of taxidermy. Besides, he was such an avid collector that the humming birds alone accounted for 5,378 specimens.

Writing John Gould’s biography with 200 years of detachment, Isabella Tree’s narrative holds interest right up to the last word. She refrains from passing judgements, but with access to monumental research material, she uses John Gould’s contemporaries, employees, peers and family to do the "speaking".

The result is a rounded self-made man, warts and all; part intuitive genius, but mostly a primed work-engine, a devoted husband who could detach from home for months without regrets. Gould was a conscientious and doting father where providing comforts of home were concerned, but could never bridge the gap between conventionality and intimacy with his children.

He had an uncanny eye for spotting the right talent to work as his assistants. He paid them more than the times, worked them down to bones, but did not acknowledge their talent in any narrative. Though affable, he had no friends among peers; instead, he successfully cultivated plenty of steadfast patrons from aristocracy and royalty in Europe and the USA. None could match him then or now in our times in running the publishing business both for superlative quality and mind boggling output.

Much as he was proud and happy with his professional attainments, his personal life was terribly sad. Behind the scenes, Elizabeth, his wife, was the bedrock both of his business and his home. She was among his very best bird artists and painters.

When she passed away at age 37 and just 12 years in marriage, she had borne 8 children and contributed 500 outstanding coloured plates and over 600 drawings to Gould’s works already published. John Gould was devastated. A lesser man may have slowed down, but not John Gould; he held his chin up, assumed Elizabeth’s place as best he could with the children and kept publishing with greater vigour.

When his eldest son passed away in the prime in India with cholera, John Gould stumbled, but steadied himself yet again. When the cruel fate felled his third son also in the prime, it was a blow too strong even for this indomitable spirit. Even so, he conceived the book A Monograph of the Pittidae, of which Part I containing 13 plates was published just months before his death.

Till today, I did not know that John Gould’s skills of sketching and painting were such that his personal work did not merit inclusion in any of his publications. However, his knowledge of the living bird was so acute that of the over 3,000 plates he published in his lifetime, the proof copy of each carries elaborate corrections, criticism, suggestions and directions to artists for improvement, in Gould’s hand.

The letterpress on each plate was written by him. Much as he loved all species of birds, the one that possessed him the most were the humming birds, even though he never saw one alive till much after he had published comprehensively on them. At long last, he visited the Americas to see and bring live specimens home.

He obtained three, but I am amazed that a man of his stature did not realise that the birds could not survive indefinitely on a diet of honey and saccharine-water alone. For want of insect protein in their diet, two died in shipping and the third after two days in England.

There is no doubt that above everything else in nature, John Gould loved birds the most, but he loved ornithology and his business of publishing even more. In the Australian bush, he had shot the male of a new species of raptor. Not satisfied, a few days later, he added a female of the species to the collection along with the nest and the eggs because of the imperatives of science, knowing fully well that its numbers were already critically low.

For the fear of any setback to his business, Gould’s voice was to remain silent from the decade-old movement in the UK that culminated in the legislation of the Bird Protection Act in 1880.

The British Ornithologists Union that came into being in 1850 accepted his papers and even published these in the Ibis, but did not admit him to the union. The Union was fully aware that Gould had established claims to the discovery of over two score new species of birds and mammals and some of his field observations and inferences had helped Charles Darwin with The Theory of Natural Selection.

Yet, where this new generation of ornithologists were concerned, Gould remained essentially an outstanding illustrator and publisher of birds, no more. Perhaps Gould accepted the verdict with equanimity and so wished his epitaph to read: "Here lies John Gould, the ‘Bird Man’."