(b. Lyme Regis, England, 14 September 1804; d. London, England, 3 February 1881)
Gould was the son of a gardener and worked at first with his father at Windsor Castle; later he was a gardener in Yorkshire and had the opportunity to observe birds and teach himself taxidermy. The Zoological Society of London was formed in 1826, and after a competition Gould was appointed taxidermist under Nicholas Vigors. He remained with the society until his death. Elizabeth Coxen, whom he married in 1829, was skilled at drawing and took up lithography to help in her husband’s publications. She also accompanied him on his travels. They had six children.
In 1830 Gould received a collection of bird skins from the Himalayas, and from them he produced a volume of colored illustrations with text by Vigors. The eighty plates, issued in twenty monthly groups, achieved a high level of accuracy in spite of the absence of living material. No publisher was willing to risk the volume, so Gould published it himself and continued as his own publisher with considerable financial success; his editions were limited to about 250 and were sold mainly on subscription. In all, he issued forty-one volumes in elephant folio containing some 3,000 plates, mostly of birds from all over the world. He also published numerous scientific papers, mainly on new species, which showed his ability in dealing with taxonomic details. The plates, all lithographed and hand-painted, are among the finest bird pictures ever produced: Gould experimented with new techniques and achieved an extraordinary effect conveying the sheen on feathers. The pictures show animals in their natural habitat, and some include fine illustrations of flowers as well; they are on the whole accurate, but Gould has sometimes been criticized for sacrificing correct detail to effect.
Gould’s most significant work was The Birds of Australia. He issued two volumes of plates and then decided that he must visit Australia before continuing; he and his wife spent 1838–1840 there with an assistant. John Gilbert. They explored Australasia extensively and recorded their findings in notes, drawings, and letters. Issued between 1840 and 1869, the new series of plates, each with a page of description of the species, included notes on distribution and adaptation to the environment, an index of species, and a systematic table. Later he issued a series on Australian mammals, noting the parallels in form and function between marsupial and placental mammals. Gould is probably better remembered in Australia than in his home country; the Gould League of Bird Lovers was founded in Victoria in 1909.
He worked on birds collected by expeditions of the Beagle and the Sulphur and made plates for their reports. He also issued works on the birds of Europe, Asia, Britain, and New Guinea, and on special groups. In 1843 Gould was elected a fellow of the Royal Society; and during the exhibition of 1851 he displayed his collection of humming birds in the gardens of the Zoological Society. He later published a monograph on them. Volumes incomplete at the time of his death in 1881 were finished by R. Bowdler Sharpe, then at the British Museum (Natural History).
Gould, who was almost entirely self-taught, had a rare combination of qualities as naturalist, artist, and businessman which enabled him to leave an extremely valuable record of bird life.
I. Original Works. His first publication was A Century of Birds From the Himalaya Mountains (London, 1831–1832), written with N. A. Vigors; the next was The Birds of Europe, 5 vols. (London, 1832–1837). The first attempt at a synopsis of the 4-part The Birds of Australia and the Adjacent Islands, 2 vols. (London, 1837–1838), is now very rare and was superseded by The Birds of Australia, 7 vols. (London, 1840–1848) and Supplement (London, 1851–1869). Of his works on special groups the most important is A Manograph of the Trochilidae or Humming-Birds, 5 vols. (London, 1849–1861), and a 5-part Supplement (London, 1880–1887). Modern reproductions of some of the plates were issued in a smaller format as Plates of Birds of Europe, Reproduced, 2 vols. (London, 1966), with text by A. Rutgers.
II. Secondary Literature. The most useful biography and bibliography of Gould are in R. Bowdler Sharpe, An Analytical Index to the Works of the Late John Gould, F. R. S., With a Biographical Memoir and Portrait (London, 1893); both are based on the obituary by Tommaso Salvadori in Atti della R. Accademia delle scienze (Turin), 16 (1881), 789–810. Two other good short accounts are G. T. Bettany, in Dictionary of National Biography, XXII (London, 1890), 287–288, which includes the bibliography of his separately published works and references to other useful obituaries; and A. H. Chisholm, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, I (Melbourne, 1966), 465–467. A popular account is C. L. Barrett, The Bird Man: A Sketch of the Life of John Gould (Melbourne-sydney, 1938). The centenary of Gould’s arrival in Australia was celebrated by a commemorative issue of Emu, 88 pt. 2 (Oct. 1938), 89–244, which includes evaluations and information about the location of MSS by Gould, most of which went to Australian libraries.
Assessment of the artistic value of Gould’s work can be found in the substantial review in The Times, no. 20,897 (3 Sept. 1851), 7; and in S. Sitwell et al., Fine Bird Books (London, 1953), pp. 25–40. The plates were dated by F. H. Waterhouse in Dates of Publication of Some of the Zoological Works of the Late John Gould (London, 1885); this includes a short biographical sketch but does not cover The Birds of Europe for which Waterhouse did a MS volume of dates (1904), still in the library of the Zoological Society of London.
There is a portrait of Gould at the Linnean Society, of which he was a fellow. His collection of birds from Australia was sold to a collector in Philadephia, but his collection of hummingbirds was bought after his death by the British Museum (Natural History), which published a catalog by A. Günther, A Guide to the Gould Collection of Humming Birds (London, 1881; 2nd ed., 1883; 3rd ed., 1884).
Diana M. Simpkins