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JOHN GOULD (1804-1881)

If it is true that John Gould could be unkind to friends and grudging in acknowledging the work of others, it is also true that from the beginning of his career he suffered from the class prejudices for which Victorian England was notorious. Edward Lear, who illustrated two of Gould’s earliest books (and who had reason enough to dislike his patron), described him as “a man who, without any prospects or education, has by dint of a singularly active mind, good talents, and uncontrollable perseverance (not to say impudence) backed by no little luck – risen in the world beyond belief” (Sauer 1998, 42). Along the same lines, an article in the Proceedings of the Royal Society noted that Gould had become vice president of the Zoological Society, “with which he had become originally connected in the humble capacity of bird-stuffer” (Tree 1991, 24).  He was elected a member of the Royal Society and the Zoological Society, but the ornithological establishment snubbed him; he was never elected to membership of the British Ornithologists’ Union. Modern assessments sometimes have an edge to them as well.  The author of a recent history of ornithology begins his account of Gould by saying, “Although John Gould contributed little to the advancement of ornithology other than a number of deluxe books and a considerable quantity of new names, he cannot be ignored” (Walters 2003, 128).

However, Gould did recognize and seize the opportunity to spend two years in the field in Australia only fifty years after the continent was settled by the British. With the help of dedicated collectors he assembled a collection of specimens of all but five species of Australian birds known at the time, from which collection he published The Birds of Australia (1840-48), a work that has a status in Australia similar to that of Audubon’s in America.  He was the “recognized authority on the birds of the southern continent, a position earned, not only by the works he issued but by his personal knowledge of the subject” (Whittell 1954, 88). In addition, in 1835 he correctly discerned the relationship among the finches of the Galápagos Islands that Charles Darwin and others had brought back with them on the Beagle. Indeed, “it was mainly John Gould who made Darwin’s collection and notes into a significant contribution to ornithology” (Steinheimer 2004, 311). Yes, that is a bit hard to ignore. It is interesting that all but one of Gould’s works devoted to Old World species were regional (birds of Europe, Australia, Asia, Great Britain, New Guinea, the Himalayas), whereas all of his books concerned with New World species were family monographs (partridges, trogons, toucans, hummingbirds).  Perhaps this was another example of his shrewdness. The British had large numbers of residents in all regions of the Old World, people who might have an interest in most species of birds in their area.  Latin America, though dominated by British commercial interests, had only two minor British colonies and relatively few English residents. Gould’s customers, concentrated in Britain and Europe, were unlikely to be fascinated by a volume full of little greenish flycatchers. So he stuck with the most colorful and glittering of Neotropical birds.