Review: The Bird Man at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

The Works of 19th-Century Ornithologist John Gould and His Illustrators

This beautifully installed and thoughtfully curated exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History (SBMNH) captures a crucial era in the history of science by focusing on the illustrated books produced by British ornithologist John Gould between 1830 and 1880. The golden age of Victorian natural science saw phenomenal advances in the study of biodiversity, as intrepid adventurers scoured the planet in search of previously unknown species. Nowhere was this pursuit more intense than among ornithologists. Gould, the self-proclaimed “Bird Man” who published these exquisite large-format, hand-colored lithographs, was the most prolific of all the great 19th-century ornithologists, Audubon included. From his headquarters in London, Gould procured, examined, stuffed, and imaged thousands of species, hundreds of which had never previously been recognized. Although Gould himself was no artist, he employed some of the best talent of the period, both in drawing the birds for his lithographs and in hand-coloring each individual image before they were shipped off to subscribers.

Gould’s first illustrator, Elizabeth Coxen Gould, was his wife and the mother of his eight children. As a young man working as a taxidermist for the Zoological Society in 1830, Gould seized the opportunity represented by a fresh shipment of specimens from the Himalayas to create his first book, A Century of Birds Hitherto Unfigured from the Himalaya Mountains. From this publication we get the magnificent creature known as the “Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler,” which is part of the exhibition’s first segment. From that exotic starting point, Gould’s bird books take off and soar through the skies of Europe (with illustrator Edward Lear — yes, that Edward Lear), Australia, and New Zealand (one of a handful of journeys Gould actually made himself, with a pregnant wife and 7-year-old son in tow). Upon their return, Elizabeth hit her stride, producing her greatest work in a steady stream of brilliant images documenting emus, bowerbirds, and even some notable non-avian subjects such as kangaroos and wallabies.

Gould was obsessed with birds of all kinds, but hummingbirds held a special, almost mythic place in his predominantly rational taxonomic project. He built special cases to house and display his personal collection of stuffed hummingbirds at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. The nearly 2,000 individual specimens that Gould prepared and mounted represented 320 species of hummingbird. For his lavish hummingbird book, Gould crafted an expensive new coloring process involving an underlay of gold leaf that gave the birds an almost-three-dimensional glow.

Gould’s comprehensive knowledge and skill as a preparer and interpreter of specimens put him in the middle of virtually all the important advances in natural science associated with birds. Easily the most consequential example of Gould’s dates with destiny came in January 1837, when Charles Darwin showed up at his studio in London with specimens he had collected during his five years sailing on the Beagle. It was Gould who unpacked, described, and named the 11 new species of ground finches that Darwin had found on the Galapagos Islands. Although Gould understood the conclusions that Darwin drew from these variations, he chose not to publicize them to his own subscribers. Gould and Elizabeth did, however, supply the black-and-white illustrations for Darwin’s own publication about his voyage, and it is Elizabeth’s drawings of finch beaks that students of evolutionary theory have contemplated ever since.

As we have come to expect from SBMNH curator Linda Miller and exhibition designer Elizabeth Soriano, this is an elegant, intellectually provocative, and extraordinarily satisfying exhibit that demonstrates the great value of what the museum has to offer.


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