The bird man

John Gould “ The Bird Man “needs no formal introduction to anyone who may have but an ounce of interest in the field of ornithology. Famous for his ornithological discoveries and his spectacular colour plate books of the nineteenth century, Gould had humble beginnings as the child of an English gardener but rose to prominence amongst the nobles of Britain and Europe because of his affinity with ornithology, taxidermy and his lavishly illustrated books.

Born in 1804 at Lyme Regis on the English coast, he was one of 5 children and the only son of John and Elizabeth Gould. Gould junior was nearly thirteen years old when his parents moved from Stoke Hill to Windsor where his father had taken the position of head gardener at Windsor Estate. A young Gould was able to expand his interest in ornithology at Windsor, where he would spend much of his free time when not assisting his father, exploring the estate and surrounding country side in search of nests, eggs and bird specimens. 

It was at this early time that he developed a passion for collecting all things around him and by the time he was 14 years old, Gould was already well known locally as a talented and gifted stuffer of birds. It is not known when John Gould first began practising taxidermy or what indeed may have guided him in this direction, because by the time he had begun practicing the art, there had already been a few books written on the subject. However, many gardeners as an extension of botany knew something of taxidermy. A few even practiced it as a little side-line to their daily lives. It is agreed however, that John Gould had a natural aptitude and talent for the work.

Of interest to note is the inventory list of Windsor Gardens dated in 1817, where John Gould senior lists the recent purchase of a gun, along with powder and shot for use in the gardens. One can only be sceptical as to the true motive behind such a purchase, particularly when one reads with enlightenment the early account by the popular nineteenth century author and publisher Charles Knight, of a young Gould at work collecting specimens on the river Thames at Windsor. This eyewitness account recalls a Gould junior lying idle in a small boat, gun by his side and book in hand, awaiting the arrival of a suitable specimen to add to his collection. On this particular occasion, it was to be a small Kingfisher that was to fall victim to the marksmanship of this young lad as it rose from the waters with a minnow grasped in its bill. Knight went on further to comment that:

In a few days he is stuffed, sitting on a pendant bough ready for the plunge. The mechanical skill of this youth amazes the unscientific bird stuffer, who have lost their trade. Good judges of Natural History eagerly buy these remarkable specimens of life in death.

By the time he was 21, John Gould had departed the horticultural field to pursue his growing passion of ornithology and taxidermy, a move that was to mark a turning point in his career, and one in which he was to never look back upon. He moved south to London, where in 1825 he set up his own business practice in taxidermy at 11 Broad Street Golden Square Soho.

Every week hundreds of unusual specimens, as well as the occasional live ones were being unloaded at the docks of London off the sailing ships returning from lands abroad. They were eagerly brought by dealers, taxidermists and collectors to fuel the growing craze of natural history sweeping the country. There was more work than most taxidermists could handle.

Gould quickly attracted some famous clients and was the first taxidermist to enjoy royal patronage, a feat attributed to his family connections at Windsor Castle. In 1829, he was commissioned to prepare the skin and skeleton of a giraffe for King George IV, together with the stuffing of a crane and two lemurs. The account totalled 148 pounds 10 shillings.

Three years later at the age of 24, Gould took on the position of Curator and Preserver to the recently formed Zoological Society of London at the rate of 100 pounds per annum where he remained, almost on a sub-contract basis for almost ten years performing duties associated with the society's collection.

On January 26, 1838, Gould gave notice to resign his position to the Society, so that he may well pursue his ambition to set sail for Australia in the spring and spend an absence of two years in that colony gathering information and specimens for his latest project: The Birds of Australia .He requested that he be allowed to resume the care of the collection on his return should he wish to do so, a request that was met with a favourable response from the Museum Committee. Though Gould did return to England, he never did resume his previous duties.

John Gould, with the assistance of his talented wife Elizabeth, had already published a series of imperial sized works on ornithology, comprised of lavishly hand- coloured illustrations of birds and text. He viewed Australia as an opportunity to be the first ornithologist to classify the avifauna of this newly chartered, unexplored continent. 

Already an interesting  assortment of wildlife had filtered its way back to London for classification by the London zoological society. The most bizarre specimen  to arrive was the platypus, an egg laying mammal who's nearest relative  the echidna, form the unique family of mammals known as the Monotremes