Elizabeth Gould, Zoological Artist 1840-1848: Unsettling Critical Depictions of John Gould's 'Laborious Assistant' and 'Devoted Wife'

By Ashley, Melissa | Hecate, May-November 2013 | Go to article overview

Elizabeth Gould, Zoological Artist 1840-1848: Unsettling Critical Depictions of John Gould's 'Laborious Assistant' and 'Devoted Wife'


Ashley, Melissa, Hecate


During an eleven-year career (1830-1841) as a sketcher, painter and lithographer, Elizabeth Gould designed and composed more than 650 hand-coloured lithographic plates of birds: these included the 50 birds depicted in Charles Darwin's ornithology section of The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1840); hundreds of lithographs of European species, and illustrated monographs about the popular novelty genera: the toucan and the trogon. In 1838 the British illustrator travelled to Australia with her husband, John Gould, a publisher, writer and ornithologist, to collect specimens for The Birds of Australia (1840-1848). The two-year project involved significant expenditure and risk; the Goulds' three youngest children, Charles, Eliza and Louisa, remained at home in London, in the care of their maternal grandmother. Between 1838 and 1840 Elizabeth, along with her eldest son, John Henry, resided in Hobart and Scone, where she completed sketches, drawings and paintings of the continent's bird species and flora. During her stay in Hobart, she gave birth to another son, Franklin Tasman. Unfortunately, Elizabeth did not live to see the completion of her research, since she died from puerperal fever in August 1841, following the birth of her daughter, Sarah, a year after her return to England. At the time of her death, Elizabeth had finished designs for 84 hand-coloured lithographs and an unknown number of preparatory drawings for the remaining 520 bird species the Goulds had surveyed and collected. The Birds of Australia, a seven-volume natural history of the continent's birdlife, featuring 600 hand-coloured lithographic plates, was an immediate success and the collection continues to be discussed and dissected today. Yet, in spite of Elizabeth's contributions, the work is usually celebrated as being from the hand of her husband, John Gould. (1)

Although Elizabeth Gould produced a substantial body of drawings and plates, it is often thought that John Gould, whose full name was printed on the spines and frontispieces of the Goulds' publications, was the artist and designer of the hand-coloured lithographs that bore the couple's co-signature. However, John Gould was "no great artist and never learnt lithography" (Jackson Lithography 39). Rather, throughout his career, John relied for the illustration of his avian collections upon a series of in-house artists, the first of whom was Elizabeth. Thus, critical responses to Elizabeth's contributions to nineteenth-century scientific illustration are most often presented in the context of Elizabeth's relationship to her husband. These interpretations, connected to women's social and cultural positioning in Victorian England, are further complicated by John's tendency to claim credit for his wife's work. Drawing upon recent scholarship (Shteir, Pycior, Le-May Sheffield, and others) which explores nineteenth-century male and female creative scientific collaborations, I discuss the limitations of representations of Elizabeth which over-emphasise her connection to John in the roles of assistant and wife. I also examine the critical reception of Elizabeth's artworks for The Birds of Australia, with a conclusion that Elizabeth deserves greater recognition for her original contributions to the design of the Gouldian hand-coloured lithograph.

"Mrs. G. is improving every day in her drawing & attitudes" (2)

In "Botany and the Breakfast Room," Ann B. Shteir argues that, by the late eighteenth-century, botany and natural history had become part of the educational training of girls in middle-class English families, a cultural practice that continued well into the Victorian period (38). Participation in activities related to botany and natural history was thought to give a young woman a sense of personal accomplishment. Following on from this, mothers were expected to instruct their children in the rudiments of botany and natural history as part of their home schooling activities (Shteir 43). …

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