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Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “A Little Bustard”

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “A Little Bustard”

  • $ 58,000.00

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)

“A Little Bustard”
Original watercolor prepared for Plate 65 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, pencil and ink on paper
Signed ‘P.J. Selby’ l.r., inscribed ‘Little Bustard’ l.c., inscribed ‘65’ upper right
Paper size: 16 15/16 x 15 1/4 in.
London, ca. 1820
Provenance: Library of H Bradley Martin.

Selby’s text for the Little Bustard is as follows: “This is a bird of a very handsome plumage, and must be Occasional considered one of our rarest visitants. Recurring only to the product of later years, two specimens are mentioned by BEWICK, as having fallen under his inspection, one of which, now in the collection of JOHN TREVELYAN, Esq. of Wallington, was taken alive upon Newmarket Heath, and survived for a very few weeks in confinement. MONTAGU alludes to three or four instances of its capture; and I am enabled to add two more, of individuals that were killed in Northumberland. One of these, in the possession of his Grace the Duke of NORTHUMBERLAND, and from the tints of its plumage, apparently a female, was shot near Wark worth, in the autumn of 1821; the other was killed on the 1st of February 1823, near Twizell, and is placed in my collection. This bird, although destitute of the peculiar markings about the head and neck that distinguish the male in his adult state, or rather perhaps at a particular season, proved, however, to be of that sex, by the unerring test of dissection. This fact, corroborated by the case mentioned in the Supplement to Dr LATHAM’S General Synopsis, of a bird of this species, killed in Sussex, having the apparent plumage of the female, but also, on dissection, proving otherwise, has led me to doubt the assertion of various writers, that all the individuals killed in Britain had been of the female sex ; and I can only account for the assertion, by concluding it to have arisen from the contrast observable between these specimens and the male, as seen in his summer attire, without the more certain criterion above mentioned having been attempted.

Whether this feminine plumage is confined to young birds, or is the proper garb of the males of all ages during the winter, I am sorry that I cannot, from my own experience, determine, but I feel inclined to lean to the latter opinion, and which is considerably strengthened by the information I have received from Captain ROBERT MITFORD, R. N., who, during a long station in the Mediterranean, had opportunities of examining the Little Bustard at all seasons of the year, and who does not recollect having killed any in the winter with a black neck, and other distinguishing marks which a male invariably possesses during the summer or pairing season. I have since ascertained that the male Little Bustard undergoes a change of plumage every spring, when he assumes the black neck and collar (as afterwards described). His winter plumage resembles that of the female bird. TEMMINCK, in his remarks on the Bustard Genus, intimates his suspicion, that the males in winter may resemble the other sex in plumage.

This species is graminivorous, and its digestive organ is membranaceous and very large. In the specimen I have before alluded to, it was distended with a mass of various grasses and the stems of clover, intermixed with the seeds of cow-parsnip (Heracleum sphondylium), and of other umbelliferous plants. No gravel, or other hard substance, generally used by birds possessing strong muscular stomachs or gizzards, was contained in it; from which it appears that MONTAGU’S views are correct, and that the gastric juice alone is sufficiently powerful, without attrition, to effect the complete dissolution of the food in many herbivorous or granivorous birds. The Little Bustard will also feed eagerly upon grain, and it is said to devour worms and insects.

It lays its egg upon the bare ground under the cover of the herbage, or low plants, such as the cistus, &c. growing upon the plains it usually frequents. The eggs are from three to five in number, and of a clear shining grass-green colour, without spot or stain.

When suddenly disturbed, this bird immediately takes wing, flying with considerable strength and velocity, from fifty to a hundred yards, raised but little above the surface of the ground; and, upon alighting, runs off with great swiftness, by this mode generally eluding the pursuit.

It is a common inhabitant of the champaign and arid parts of Spain, Italy, and Turkey ; is tolerably abundant in the south of France, and very numerous on the coasts of Barbary. In Switzerland and Germany it is a rare bird. Its flesh is excellent, and surpasses in flavour that of our most esteemed gallinaceous game.

PLATE 66. A male bird, in the young or winter plumage, and of the natural size.

Length, when extended, one foot five inches and a half. GBreadth, along the extended wings, two feet ten inches and a half. Bill blackish-brown; the upper mandible emarginated. Irides saffron-yellow. Crown of the head and occiput cream-yellow, speckled and spotted with black. Chin and throat white. Neck cream-yellow; the centres of the feathers, and a cross bar in them, black. Hind part of the neck destitute of feathers, and covered with grey down. The whole of the upper parts scapulars, and lesser wing-coverts, beautifully barred and mottled with buff-orange, cream-yellow, and black. Greater wing-coverts white, with two black bars. First four quills half white, half black; fifth entirely white, except the tip, which is spotted with black; the next four white, with one black bar near the tips; those next to the body long, white, with three black bars. Breast and sides white, transversely barred with black. Middle of the belly, thighs, and vent, white. The roots or downy bases of the feathers of the under parts are flesh-red. Tail of eighteen feathers; the four middle ones cream-yellow, with four black bars; the rest white, barred and spotted with black. Legs yellowish-grey, reticulated; toes short. First quill-feather about half an inch shorter than the second and third, which are of equal length.

The female resembles the male in the above state, except that the black spots and bars upon the upper parts of the body are not so intense.

The male, in the adult state, or perhaps during the pairing-season only, has a white collar upon the upper and lower region of the throat, and the intermediate part black. In other respects as in the winter plumage.

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)

Considered by many as the English equivalent of Audubon, Prideaux John Selby created some of the most memorable bird images of the nineteenth-century. His contributions to British ornithology were rivaled only by those of John Gould. Yet, his pictures were larger and less purely scientific, exhibiting Selby’s distinctive and charming style. A sense of Selby’s enthusiasm for his subjects is nowhere more palpable than in his engaging original watercolors. Selby executed these delightful images as preparatory models for his landmark printed series, Illustrations of British Ornithology. While the artist’s engraved work is highly desirable to collectors, Selby’s original watercolors rarely become available. This selection of watercolors, moreover, comprises several of his masterpieces. The distinctive birds are depicted in profile, their forms delineated by softly modulated tones of black and gray wash. The setting, if present, is lightly but skillfully painted to not distract from the birds themselves. The skill and delicacy of Selby’s touch, his keen powers of observation, and his artistic sensitivity are conveyed here in a way they are not in his printed work. Several of the drawings are by Selby’s brother-in-law, Robert Mitford, but signed in Selby’s hand. 

Born in Northumberland and educated at University College, Oxford, Selby was a landowner and squire with ample time to devote to studying the plant and animal life at his country estate, Twizell House. As a boy, he had studied the habits of local birds, drawn them, and learned how to preserve and set up specimens. Later, Selby became an active member of several British natural history societies and contributed many articles to their journals. Although Selby was interested in botany and produced a History of British Trees in 1842, he is best known for his Illustrations of British Ornithology. Selby’s work was the first attempt to create a set of life-sized illustrations of British birds, remarkable for their naturalism and the delicacy of their execution. The British Ornithology was issued in nineteen parts over thirteen years; the book consisted of 89 plates of land birds and 129 plates of water birds, engraved by William Lizars of Edinburgh, the printer who engraved the first ten plates of Audubon’s Birds of America.

With their rich detail and tonal range, these exquisite watercolors are beautiful works by one of the foremost British bird painters. Furthermore, they represent a singular opportunity to obtain a unique piece of the highest quality by this luminary artist, from an era in British ornithological art that remains unparalleled. 

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