Folio, five volumes (545 x 375 mm.), in beautiful contemporary full green morocco binding by Joseph Zaehnsdorf (1816-86), extensive ornate gilt panels to boards, raised spines with fine decorative gilt decoration. gilt edged. With 367 fine hand coloured lithographed plates after Gould, H. C. Richter, and W. Hart by Richter and Hart, most heightened with gum arabic, two text engravings, each volume with title and table of contents, list of subscribers in volume 1, title to volume 4 with 20 mm., tear to lower margin repaired, otherwise an exceptionally clean example overall.
An excellent example of the most famous work on British Birds, and the book considered by many to be John Gould’s crowning achievement. ‘A Magnificent work with life-like portraits of the birds of the British Isles’ (Wood). John Gould (1804-81) was born in Lyme, England in 1804, the son of a gardener. With no formal education at the age of 14, he followed his father into the same trade. In his spare time, he learnt how to preserve and mount specimens and traded some of them with the scholars at nearby Eton College. After a short time as a gardener in Yorkshire he settled in London as a taxidermist. In 1827 he received a position at the Zoological Society as curator. His first book on the birds of the Himalayas was published in 1832 when he was just 26 years old. Gould employed the new technology of lithography, his wife Elizabeth being responsible for the lithographic illustrations and the drawings onto stone.
In the preface Gould records his pride: ‘Many of the public are quite unaware how the colouring of these large Plates is accomplished; and not a few believe that they are produced by some mechanical process or by chromo-lithography. This, however, is not the case; every sky with its varied tints and every feather of each bird were coloured by hand; and when it is considered that nearly two hundred and eighty thousand illustrations in the present work have been so treated, it will most likely cause some astonishment to those who give the subject a thought.’ Richard Bowdler Sharpe said of the work: ‘Such beautiful illustrations…scarcely existed before and are not likely to be surpassed’.
The 367 plates were from drawings by Gould and Joseph Wolf (1820-99), the latter acknowledged as being with Edward Lear the leading ornithological artist of his day. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society and Vice President of the Zoological Society. ‘In the field of natural history, the accomplishments of John Gould in his 76 years of life from 1804 to 1881 are truly monumental. No other ornithologist has ever exceeded the number of Gould’s bird discoveries and the magnitude and splendour of his folio publications.’ (Sauer).
The ‘Birds of Great Britain’ is considered rightfully one of the finest works he published. Gould described it as a return to his old love. The aesthetics are wonderful, many include nests and young birds. Each of the fine plates is accompanied by a leaf of descriptive text. Provenance: Russell James Colman (1861-1946) bookplate, one time Mayor of Norwich, the last Colman family member of the board of Colmans (Mustard), a biography of him was published in 1954; Forum Auctions 26 May 2022 lot 304. Anker (1979) p. 60; Ayer (1926) 261; ‘Fine Bird Books’ (1990); Nissen IVB (1976) 372; ODNB; Sauer (1982) 23; Sharpe (1893); Sitwell & Ripley (1990) pp. 40 & 102; Wood (1931) p. 365.