The Wondrous Birds of the Himalayas and the Forgotten Victorian Woman Whose Illustrations Rewilded the Western Imagination
By Maria Popova
Elizabeth Gould (July 18, 1804–August 15, 1841) found working as a governess “miserably-wretched dull.” Artistically and musically gifted, boundlessly curious about the world, she had grown up painting and collecting specimens. Now in her early twenties, she felt life must have more to offer than the lonely occupation of looking after small children with whom one “cannot communicate a single thought or feeling.”
By twenty-four, Elizabeth had met and married the young taxidermist John Gould, himself a man of broader dreams — passionate about birds, he yearned to become a respected ornithologist, not a mere decorator of Victorian parlors and museums. He knew that the pathway to professional respect was a book, and he knew that it had to be accurately, consummately illustrated.
To support her husband’s aspiration, Elizabeth set out to build on her talent and master the art of natural history illustration, painting John’s taxidermy specimens with growing fidelity to life that made the stuffed dead birds come alive on the page. To learn lithography — the same thrilling new technology that, elsewhere in England, William Blake was mastering to make his myth — she began taking lessons with the young polymathic artist and poet Edward Lear, a friend of the family.
When John got access to a Zoological Society package of bird specimens from the Himalayas in 1830 — many never before seen by European eyes, some never before described in scientific literature — he immediately knew this was to be the book with which to make his mark.
As she labored to illustrate it, Elizabeth painstakingly painted the minutest details with a single-hair brush.
By 1831, unable to find a publisher, John and Elizabeth self-published A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains (public library | public domain) — a lavish folio featuring 80 of Elizabeth’s exquisitely painted plates.
A century and a half before Substack, the Goulds funded their work through subscriptions. With nearly 300 subscribers — twice as many as subscribed to Blake’s Book of Job — it was considered a staggering success.
So began their illustrious career in zoology, anchored in Elizabeth’s meticulous illustrations. Year after year, she worked tirelessly through pregnancy after pregnancy, grief after grief — by the end of her short life, she would bear nine children and lose three; year after year, she refined her technique and deepened her artistry as she went on doing for ornithology what the Scott sisters did for entomology and what Marianne North did for botany.
In 1838, the Goulds set out for Australia to make field observations and introduce the continent’s native birds to European eyes. It was not an easy decision for Elizabeth. She would be a world away from her ailing mother; she feared her three youngest children would not survive the long, arduous, and uncertain voyage, so she left them in England with a family friend and took only her eldest son.
Several months into the adventure, she wrote to her mother:
I saw yesterday a little girl who so strongly reminded me of Lizzy, my darling, that I could scarcely leave her… Oh, my dear mother, how happy shall I be if permitted to see you once more and my dear children… Pray give my love to all our friends, none of whom are forgotten by us.
Three months later, with mounting homesickness, she rued in a letter to her children’s guardian:
I am very anxious to get back to home sweet home… And the dear little tots, how I long to see them… Most likely they will be much altered.
After two years on the other side of the globe, John and Elizabeth returned to England with the makings of what would become their most triumphant book: The Birds of Australia, featuring 84 stunning plates Elizabeth drew not from taxidermy specimens but from life.
Life itself, however, interceded. She was still at work on the project when her uncommon talent was subsumed by a common tragedy of her era. A month after her thirty-seventh birthday, days after giving birth to her ninth child, Elizabeth Gould died of puerperal fever — the same postpartum infection that had killed Mary Wollstonecraft after the birth of Mary Shelley, inflicted by the physician attending the birth in an era predating microbiology and the notion of pathogens, when doctors thought it unnecessary to wash their hands before procedures. She left behind more than 650 meticulously designed, lithographed, and hand-painted plates of creatures wild and wondrous, alien to the Western eye — a living kaleidoscope of an evolutionary inheritance humanity was yet to understand. Elizabeth Gould had a hand in its rudiments — in the final years of her short life, she illustrated, anonymously, the birds volume of Darwin’s immense Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle.
Complement with Sarah Stone’s natural history illustrations of exotic and endangered species from the previous century and the stunning astronomical art of the self-taught artist and astronomer Maria Clara Eimmart from two centuries earlier, then revisit the remarkable story of underwater artist Else Bostelmann, who brought the deep-sea world to the human imagination in the twentieth century.
Published July 15, 2023