AUDEBERT (JEAN BAPTISTE) & LOUIS JEAN PIERRE VIEILLOT [Oiseaux dorés ou à reflets métalliques:] Histoire naturelle et générale des colibris, oiseaux-mouches, jacamars et promerops. II: ...des grimpereaux et des oiseaux de paradis, 2 vol., FIRST EDITION, ONE OF 200 FOLIO COPIES, WITH THE CAPTIONS PRINTED IN GOLD, Paris, Desray, [1800]-1802

When nature meets artistry, the results take flight. Simon Barnes explores three of the greatest works in the history of ornithology

It's been called the most beautiful finch in the world: purple, yellow, green, red and blue, colours recklessly laid on with, it seems, no other purpose than to delight the human eye. But it's as wild as anything that lives, you can find it only in Australia and it was first described by the great ornithologist John Gould in 1841.

The bird is so impossibly lovely that he named it after his wife, Elizabeth. The Lady Gouldian finch commemorates a great artist – two great artists – and their great partnership. Elizabeth died three years before the bird was named, and seven years before her greatest achievement was revealed to a stunned public.

The Birds of Australia – which will be offered in the Wassenaar Zoo Library sale in London on 30 May, where the more than 2,400 volumes include exceptional zoological works by Daniel Giraud Elliot and François Levaillant – was published in seven volumes in 1848. It is one of the great works of ornithology: as beautiful as it was pioneering. And the hand of Mrs Gould is on most of those impossibly gorgeous – and impossibly accurate – illustrations.

She was never 'Lady' Gould: neither she nor her husband were grand enough to possess or be given a title. John was the son of a gardener who initially trained as a gardener himself; Elizabeth was a governess with a talent for drawing.

John had a vast enthusiasm for natural history, and he caught the wave of the world's growing fascination with the subject. He switched from gardening to taxidermy – stuffed birds and mammals were increasingly sought-after items – and his great coup was stuffing a giraffe for George IV.

His immense skill saw him appointed as the first curator for the Zoological Society of London, but John, with apparently limitless funds of energy, saw this only as a beginning.

His most significant contribution to science came when he worked on the collections that Darwin brought back from the voyage of the Beagle: especially the birds of the Galapagos.

His job was to describe them for science. He saw the point that Darwin missed, at least when it came to the famous group known as Darwin's finches. What mattered was that superficially similar birds from different islands varied so much that they were entirely different species. How could this be? Darwin eventually answered the question that had been raised by Gould's superlative eye for detail. It was, of course, survival of the fittest.

Gould was turning into an institution. He was a great organiser, a terrific entrepreneur, and deeply committed to his subject. He became one of the great presenters of nature to the nature-deprived people of the ever-growing cities, the David Attenborough of his time. He started to produce brilliantly illustrated books about wildlife, and Elizabeth's abilities were an essential part of this. Gould had a talent for other people's talents: recognising them, organising them, getting the most from them.

In 1832, he produced his first book, A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains. John's rough drawings were transferred to lithographic plates by Elizabeth.

This success was followed by many others. John, always keen on pushing the boundaries, was mad to do a pioneering book on Australia. The problem was a shortage of specimens: that is to say, dead birds to draw. The answer was to go to Australia and get them. The Goulds spent two years there.

It was a partnership that involved others too, among them Elizabeth's brothers Charles and Stephen. At the centre of it all was John's eye: his ability to make field sketches and notes. His aim was to show each bird as a living creature, caught unawares in the middle of its daily life.

His ambition on setting off to Australia was to "investigate... the habits and manners of its birds in a state of nature". Those last five words were what counted. These illustrations were not to be fanciful imaginings of what a bird might get up to: John wanted authenticity.

He observed the satin bower-bird and the extraordinary arena that the male creates to attract the female: "a playing-ground or hall of assembly", Gould said, unsure of its function.

It became one of the few double-size plates in the great work. Of course, plenty of specimens were collected. Before the invention of photography there was no other way. John's drawings, with his brilliant eye for detail and for differences between species, were then worked on by Elizabeth.

They returned to England in 1840. Tragically, Elizabeth died of puerperal fever the following year, but the groundwork for the great work was there. Her task was continued by Henry Constantine Richter, who completed 595 plates using Elizabeth's work as his starting point.

The work was finally published in 1848, with a subsequent eighth volume covering new discoveries. Of the 681 birds the work contained, 328 were new to science. One more thing: the Goulds also brought back from Australia Britain's first living budgerigars: "the most animated, cheerful little creatures you can possible imagine", John said.

The great Gouldian works – 41 volumes in all, with more than 3,000 plates between them – are not John's exclusive work any more than the great Life trilogy is the exclusive work of Attenborough. But in the same way, John's vision dominates: bringing the world new revelations of truth and beauty.

In this time before photography, the work of drawing and engraving really mattered. And though everyone involved in the process strived for objectivity – rather than what skaters used to call "artistic impression" – it is impossible for art not to creep in. These works lie in the overlapping part of the Venn diagram that has two vast circles representing art and science.

This is an area inhabited by other masters of natural history in the pre-camera days. One such is Jean-Baptiste Audebert, an 18th-century pioneer. His best work is in his two volumes of Oiseaux dorés: sumptuous illustrations of birds in which gold and silver had been added to the finished plate, by means of a technique he invented himself. Many bird colours depend not on pigment but on the refraction of light through feathers: the reflection of these metallic colours gives a pleasing illusion of the iridescence of bird plumage.

Hermann Schlegel, a near-exact contemporary of Gould, was another of those 19th-century figures born with a talent for natural history. His father worked in a brass foundry and collected butterflies: Schlegel rejected brass and went on to become director of the museum at Leiden. He too named a bird after his wife, who was called Albertina.

Schlegel's mynah has the scientific name Streptocitta albertinae. All three men aimed for completion, knowing that it could never be attained, and for perfection, knowing that it was beyond them. They embraced that frustration because it was an essential part of their fascination with natural history – and it's something that remains true for everyone who looks at the wild world today.

But one thing that could be attained – by those with enough ability and work and time and teamwork and entrepreneurial skill – was beauty.

All three men were responsible for works of startling beauty, and they all knew that the beauty didn't come from themselves. Rather, they knew they were privileged people because they were deeply familiar with the beauty of the natural world and had the still greater privilege of showing it to the rest of humankind. They produced great work because their subject is greater than all of them.

Simon Barnes' most recent book of ornithology is Bird Watching with Your Eyes Closed.

Sale: Wassenaar Zoo: a Dutch Private Library
Wednesday 30 May at 1pm
Enquiries: Matthew Haley +44 (0) 20 7393 3817

  1. Matthew Haley
    Montpelier Street
    London, United Kingdom SW7 1HH
    Work +44 20 7393 3817

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