Meet the woman responsible for John Gould’s Fame

Elizabeth Gould’s artistry and technical skill as an illustrator breathed life into hundreds of newly discovered species, and was crucial modern ornithology and classification. She illustrated the species of finches that gave rise to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and produced hundreds of the lithographs of birds that made her husband, John, famous. In The Birdman’s Wife, Melissa Ashely has imagined the life of Elizabeth as a mother, birdwatcher and artist, giving well-deserved recognition to this incredible historical figure. Melissa tells gr about her passion for Australian birdlife, her dealings with taxidermy, and how falling in love with a poet lead her to write this book.

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Why do you think Elizabeth Gould’s story and skill as an illustrator have been largely uncelebrated, and what made you decide to dedicate an entire book to rectifying this lack of recognition?

John Gould, the famous 19th ornithologist, created one of the most enduring brands in natural history as ‘The Birdman’ and the ‘father’ of Australian ornithology and is renowned for creating the most sublime images of birds the world had ever seen before. But few people know that his wife, Elizabeth Gould, was the artist who illustrated and designed more than 600 of the exquisite hand-coloured images he is famous for. Yet her legacy has been overshadowed by his fame. Almost two hundred years of analysis of John Gould and his contributions to ornithology and zoological illustration have created a colossal figure. Conversely, time and time again, Elizabeth has been consigned to his shadow. Elizabeth was viewed as either John Gould’s faithful and supportive wife, or his willing assistant and acolyte. Onto these interpretations were projected all kinds of stereotypical feminine qualities, that she was delicate, polite, elegant and deferent. Some critics even go so far as to suggest that she sacrificed her very life for her husband’s pursuits.

But the real Elizabeth was a woman of substance and a woman ahead of her time, juggling her work as an artist with her role as wife and mother to an ever-growing brood of children. Yet her creative output was extraordinary. She was a passionate and adventurous spirit, defying convention by embarking on a two-year expedition to the Australian colonies with her husband to collect and illustrate our unique birds and plants. At a time when the world was obsessed with discovering natural wonders, Elizabeth was as at its epicentre, working alongside legends like Edward Lear and Charles Darwin. Yet in many of the books about John Gould it would be impossible to find this woman. At last in The Birdman’s Wife I have been able to tell her amazing story and overturn some of the outdated misconceptions about her.

What motivated you to imagine and evoke Elizabeth’s life with fiction rather than as a biography?

It all started when I fell in love with a poet, and with his poem about a bird. We became avid birdwatchers together. Writers, too. When he rescued a ringneck parrot and we adopted it as a pet, a friend gave me a book about caring for parrots and a biography about John Gould. That was how I discovered that his wife, Elizabeth, created the beautiful images of birds he wrote about in his exquisitely illustrated folios. She was portrayed as such a shadowy figure yet her work as an artist was so key to his fame and the history of birds that I became enthralled with her. I began researching Elizabeth’s life in earnest and the more I learned about her, the more determined I became to uncover her story.

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Poet, writer and birder Melissa Ashley.

I’ve always loved stories about women who are overlooked by history, and I find creative artistic relationships fascinating – Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley; Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning – so Elizabeth and John Gould’s intimate creative relationship added an extra spark of interest. Elizabeth Gould was such an intriguing enigma that I became convinced that she would be the ideal protagonist for an historical novel and so I made her the subject of my PhD in creative writing. Writing a novel rather than biography allowed me to fill in the gaps of her narrative, to imagine and bring to life what it might have felt like to be a mother to six children, a busy career woman and an adventuress in the early 19th century. It’s not possible to achieve the level of lyricism and emotional depth I wanted to bring to the story in a biography. For me, it was never a question of writing biography. From the get-go I wanted to write a fictional reimagining and revitalisation of her incredible experiences and personality.

How did you go about imagining her voice and personality to the extent that you were able to focalise through her? What was she like?

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Elizabeth Gould with a cockatiel

I’m a researcher by training and I love nothing more than digging into files and archives. For Elizabeth’s story that meant 1830s London and Australia; ornithology, zoological illustration, voyages of exploration, childbearing practices. I came to a stage where I felt I had spent enough time with printed books. I needed to follow in the footsteps of my heroine and get out into the field, go birdwatching, learn bird-stuffing and, ideally, to handle archival materials that Elizabeth Gould made herself, which I was finally able to do in the State Library of NSW. The discovery of her letter book in John Gould’s papers helped me to make the jump from the biographical Elizabeth to imagining her emotional journey, her personal experiences and challenges, and finding her voice as the narrator of The Birdman’s Wife.

Elizabeth was a naïve young woman when she fell in love with a passionate and ambitious genius but she came into her own as a woman, an artist and a mother. She was fierce and loyal, a loving mother and a loving partner. She was a talented artist, with an artist’s flair not only for the visual but what lies beneath. She loved poetry and literature and the symbolism of birds rather than just the science behind them. Her letters showed she was was clever and witty, and her strength of character is clear in her ability to get on with life for the sake of her family after losing two of her children. Elizabeth’s experiences as a working mother will certainly resonate with many modern readers but her achievements, her warmth and humour, her loving nature and her willingness to take risks, so unusual for a woman of her time, make her an irresistible and exciting character for a novel.

What forms of research were the most useful in yielding details about Elizabeth? Did you discover anything that surprised you?

I researched by reading biographies, histories of the discovery of Australian birds, and also went on field trips to the Upper Hunter Valley and Hobart, where Elizabeth spent most of her two year expedition in Australia. Thanks to a travel grant from the University of Queensland, I was able to visit a little town in Kansas called Lawrence, where the largest Gouldian archive in the world is held. There I found countless resources, manuscripts, original versions of Elizabeth and John’s beautiful folios, and a swathe of correspondence from researchers into the Goulds’ lives. I discovered that the Goulds’ son, Charles, a character in The Birdman’s Wife, wrote a book called Mythical Monsters, where he tried to argue that creatures like the hydra and the gorgon had really existed and were now extinct. I also found documents related to the deaths of Elizabeth’s sons, John Henry Gould and Franklin Gould – characters in the novel as well – who both died of dysentery while at sea. They perished in separate incidents and the detailed reports from the chaplains and surgeons aboard their ships regarding the medicines and religious rites they received helped me to write about Elizabeth’s experience of childbed fever.

What do you think drew the Goulds – and yourself – to the investigation and illustration of birdlife?

My passion for birds and how they fascinate and inspire us. I am an avid birdwatcher and I am fascinated by antique etchings and prints of birds; I love the illustrations’ awkward grace. In 2004, the discovery of a cache of 56 paintings of Australian birds and plants by George Raper, a midshipman and navigator on the First Fleet, seized my imagination. The watercolour paintings were uncovered in England during an inventory of the estate of Lord Moreton, the Earl of Ducie. Intrigued by the illustration of a laughing kookaburra, one of the evaluators brought the buried collection to light. Once part of Sir Joseph Banks’ First Fleet materials, the collection had passed into the Ducie family and lain untouched for two hundred years. This was a truly astounding find. Although Raper’s paintings were naïve, his attention to the details and colours of the birds’ wings and feathers was extraordinary. By this time my birdwatching had intensified into a near obsession, and I began to travel great distances to encounter new species, which I would excitedly add to my ‘life list’, a record of birds seen for the very first time. The excitement of this pursuit led to me wonder what it might have felt like for George Raper and his fellow First Fleet bird enthusiasts’ when they encountered Australia’s unique birds, so utterly different to the species of Britain and Europe, for the first time.

The appeal of delving into Elizabeth Gould’s forgotten history, of trying to imagine how it must have felt for them to see, paint and collect species that had never been encountered before, connected to my own thrill when twitching a new species of bird for the first time. Elizabeth began illustrating birds for John well before they embarked on their publishing venture. So John was already aware of her great skill. The crucial experience for John and Elizabeth was meeting 18-year-old Edward Lear. The young artist was going to publish a monograph on parrots, vowing to illustrate every caged parrot in England. Upon viewing his magnificent lithographs of macaws and black cockatoos, Gould – already making a good living as a taxidermist and museum curator – became inspired to undertake his own publishing and illustrating venture, employing Elizabeth as his artist. Elizabeth was a crucial part of John’s enterprise from the very beginning. Indeed, I think it is safe to say that if Elizabeth wasn’t willing or such a skilled artist, Gould would never have attempted the project.

Are many of the species brought to life by Elizabeth’s artistry now extinct?

There are two that I can think of; the Norfolk Island Kaka, a ground parrot like the Kea from New Zealand. Never particularly abundant on the island – it had been hunted for food by Polynesians who travelled to Norfolk Island to gather food – as well as the starving penal colony that arrived on the island in 1788 and further decimated the scant population. The last kaka to perish was a caged pet, expiring in London in 1851. Elizabeth’s lithograph of the species is very special, both in an artistic and a scientific sense. Not only is the illustration utterly beautiful – it’s featured in the endpapers of The Birdman’s Wife – but it’s one of the last records of this extinct species.

The other is the Huia, a New Zealand endemic. This black, yellow-beaked bird was hunted to extinction thanks to a 19th century passion for its feathers, worn by women – like ostrich plumage – in their fashionable hats. King George was seen with a Huia feather in his hat, which ignited demand for the sleek black feathers. Although John Gould killed species for science, he only took what was needed. He strongly disapproved of using bird feathers for fashion. On his expedition to Australia he criticised the settlers’ cruel treatment of black swans, which were trapped and killed in large numbers for their downy under-feathers, for use in pillows and other insulation.

You learned to produce taxidermied bird skins at Queensland University –could you describe this process briefly? Do you view taxidermy as a rather morbid practice?

Not at all. A bit strange and smelly by all means. A strong stomach is required. I took a behind the scenes tour of the Queensland Museum’s zoological collection, thinking that this would be a great opportunity to view the scientific side of taxidermy, and also to see some taxidermied birds up close. The preparation of scientific birdskins for the musuem’s collections are carried out by volunteers. At the end of the tour, one of them challenged me to come along and learn more about taxidermy. And so I became a volunteer trainee bird-stuffer – as they referred to it in the 19th century – submitting myself to the pungent and visceral task of preparing scientific study skins.

I would enter the zoological vertebrate laboratory of a Wednesday morning and take up my stool at a shared worktable. Neatly arranged at my place was a stuffing kit—toothbrush, Dacron (more commonly used to stuff mattresses), paper towels, cornflour, clamps, forceps, scalpel, bonecrusher—and a plastic bag containing a thawed specimen from the museum’s enormous storage freezer: a black-shouldered kite, a barn owl or grey petrel, its thick skin making it easier to remove the body or ‘meat’, as Gould’s stuffers referred to a specimen’s tissue and bones. Slicing into skin, removing muscle and fat, separating joints and scraping ligaments from bone, with my hands and senses I learned the processes John Gould followed to prepare specimens for Elizabeth to sketch.

Which illustration of Elizabeth’s is the most brilliant?

I have to say my favourite illustration is the resplendent quetzal, a trogon from Central America. To this day the Guatemalans still name their currency after the species. Elizabeth illustrated the resplendent quetzal from a stuffed skin around 1836, and I devoted part of a chapter to exploring her almost mystical experience in attempting to capture and paint a faithful likeness of this incredible bird. Quetzals were believed to have magical qualities by the ancient Mayans and were revered as living gods. It was forbidden to kill a quetzal and only the most powerful chiefs were permitted to wear its glorious tapering tail feathers. High priests travelled into the remote cloud forests to capture the males and pluck tail feathers before releasing them to grow more.

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It was a challenge to render the brilliance of the resplendent quetzal in words so I’m happy to say that readers of The Birdman’s Wife can fully appreciate the beauty it beauty by seeing Elizabeth’s painting in the endpapers. We have also featured it on a bookmark.

What are some of your favourite Australian bird species to observe? Is there a particularly rare species on your bird-watching bucket list that you’d be thrilled to spot in the wild?

One of my favourite Australian birds, the beloved and easily recognisable superb fairy wren – the male has such an iridescent blue and black upper body – is featured as the cover of The Birdman’s Wife, as well as on the cloth cover of the case of the book. When researching the novel at the John Gould Ornithological Collection in the Spencer Research Library in Kansas, I came across the original pencil design that Elizabeth made of the beautiful species. I love the life in the lithograph, the male bringing a worm to the juvenile in its nest, and think it’s a great example of Elizabeth’s illustrative genius.

One of the most fun parts of birdwatching is using it as an excuse to travel to remote places. I once drove 800 kilometres west of Brisbane to a bird sanctuary to see four of our magnificently coloured arid parrots: the mulga, the ringneck, the pink cockatoo and Bourke’s parrot. I have a chapter in The Birdman’s Wife about a funny little bird known as the plains wanderer. It’s a rare species, found in arid South Australia, and has an ancient lineage with no living relatives. It was only recently, with the aid of DNA, analysis that ornithologists were able to agree upon its classification in the taxonomic tree of birds. I would dearly love to see this strange little critter in the wild.

Could you share with us a favourite sentence or teaser paragraph from The Birdman’s Wife?

‘Drawing was my central preoccupation: perfecting my designs directed the compass of my hours. Pencils, my sloped desk, a study skin, its eyes replaced by cotton wool, were all the materials I required. The plumage brushed and set in place, I flipped the specimen onto its back and sketched the feet, imagining the creature flitting about, incubating eggs, defending territory. Later, as I grew accustomed to my subject’s morphology and was ready to experiment with composition, I mused on other thoughts. My mind drifted. For a time I was so taken by the work of looking – of switching my eyes from the materiality of the bill to the intricacy of the cere – little else existed. It was a kind of marvelling, because in trying to replicate a bird’s form with my brush, I came to admire and to know it. I painted and I studied and, in this constant striving, became me.” (pp. 329)

The Birdman’s Wife is published by Affirm Press.

3 responses to “Meet the woman responsible for John Gould’s Fame

  1. Pingback: Meet the woman responsible for John Gould’s Fame – Satin Bowerbird·

  2. I just finished reading this – the cover caught my eye while looking for something to read on a plane, and I’m very glad it did.
    It is an interesting story enhanced by the author’s notes. I’m always as fascinated by the process of research and writing as I am by the story itself.
    I’m tempted to seek out the biography of John Gould now.

  3. Pingback: Interviews: The Birdman’s Wife – Satin Bowerbird·

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