John Gould–Historic 19th century illustrated work on hummingbirds gets a new edition

Review by C.J. Bunce

Family of Humming-birds, completed in six volumes in 1887, was the culmination of a fifty-year career of John Gould, one of the earliest and most renowned ornithologists.  A publication of 418 hand-colored illustrations representing all the known species of hummingbirds of the day, it was considered the definitive scientific reference of the era on the subject.  The volume also reflected one of the most attractive species of animal that would appeal to some of the world’s most elite collectors, scientists, and educators.   With 39 pages of introductory information written by Joel and Laura Oppenheimer, Rizzoli Electa is reprinting the entirety of Gould’s six volumes of prints in the new publication The Family of Hummingbirds: The Complete Prints of John Gould, to be released at the end of this month.

When the HMS Beagle naturalist Charles Darwin returned to England in 1836 from the Galapagos with crates of samples of animal life for scientific study, under special dispensation from the Crown he was allowed to determine which scientists received what families of animals for study, instead of depositing them all with the British Museum as was common practice.  For the bird collection, he selected John Gould, a rising star of both avian study, taxidermy, and illustration.  Darwin’s theory of the transmutation of species and later his theory on natural selection in part came from findings shared by Gould.  The third volume of Darwin’s findings from his exploration included 50 illustrations by Gould’s wife Elizabeth and text written by Gould.  Nearly 20 years before Darwin’s landmark text On the Origin of Species, this earlier work provided some of the ground work for the theory of evolution, despite Gould not publicly endorsing Darwin’s theories.  After his wife passed away on their expedition to chronicle birds and mammals in Australia, Mr. Gould would continue publishing folios on the birds of the world, ultimately amassing several publications covering birds, as well as other animals, across the globe.


Nearest to Gould’s heart was the fascinating hummingbird, which he referred to as “this family of living gems.”  According to the foreword in The Family of Hummingbirds: The Complete Prints of John Gould provided by naturalist and historian Robert McCracken Peck, Family of Humming-birds “represented a family of birds of remarkable grace and beauty that lived in exotic habitats unlikely to be seen even by collectors wealthy enough to afford the book Gould devoted to them.”  Artist H.C Richter would expand upon John Gould’s sketches and ideas for plates–Gould would first draw a male and female of each species with a plant native to its habitat, ultimately creating all 360 plates in the book’s first five volumes, released piecemeal via subscriptions ultimately with the recipients to have the completed work formally bound.

The first five volumes of the completed work actually would be published over a great deal of time–between 1849 and 1861–as each final page was transferred to lithographic stone by Richter.  A supplement was completed under Gould’s direction between 1880 and 1887, adding 58 more species drawn and lithographed by Gould and artist William Matthew Hart, who Gould added to his production team to add color, including gold leaf and other iridescence techniques–the actual method of application and composition was never revealed–to bring out the unique brilliance of this family of birds.


In two essays the Oppenheimers describe life and work in the context of science in the 19th century, and include the methods used by Gould and his contemporaries to learn, preserve, display, record, report, share, and develop new knowledge of bird biology.  They describe how Gould’s first plates from his book on hummingbirds were initially displayed along with the taxidermied collection at the Great Exhibition held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, in 1851.  According to the book, 75,000 visitors attended the event, including novelist Charles Dickens, who wrote an account of the hummingbird display.  A shrewd businessman, Gould used the exhibition to increase his sales of his book, adding from this widely publicized display subscriptions from most of the royal families of Europe.

Many of the original sketch images from the book are housed in the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas, and some images were provided by the Oppenheimers’ collection.

A beautiful book full of gorgeous art work and information on a historically significant creator, The Family of Hummingbirds: The Complete Prints of John Gould is sure to be a prized publication for birdwatchers, fans of natural history art, and hummingbird lovers.  It is available in a full-color, 304-page hardcover edition for pre-order now here at Amazon.

Leave a Reply