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Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “European Dipper”

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “European Dipper”

  • $ 75,000.00

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)
“European Dipper”
Original watercolor prepared for Plate 45 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes, pen and black ink on paper
Inscribed lower right: the European Dipper.
Signed bottom right: P.J. Selby.
Paper size: 8 1/4 x 7 1/8 in.

Selby’s description of the European Dipper is as follows: “These interesting little birds are natives of our island, but, from their peculiar habits, are confined to certain districts; those only where they can meet with clear and rocky streamlets. It is therefore in the mountainous tracts of Scotland and Wales, in some of the northern counties of England, in parts of Devonshire, and probably in Derbyshire, that we must look for these wild and solitary songsters. They are generally seen single, or in pairs, and always on the margin of the stream, or perched in their particular attitude, on some projecting stone in the middle of the water. From such situations I have repeatedly seen them dive below the surface, and remain submerged for a considerable time, occupied in pursuing the fry (or young fish), or in search of the larvae of aquatic insects. At other times they walk slowly into the water from the shallow part of a pool, till it becomes of sufficient depth for diving ; but I have not been able, even from close observation, to certify the fact repeated by some naturalists, of their walking with apparent ease at the bottom; and which error of opinion might arise from the manner of their occasionally entering the water as above stated. On the contrary, the same exertion seems to be used by them as by other diving birds, an idea also entertained by Montagu, to whose pleasing description of the habits of this species I refer my readers. I have had an opportunity of bestowing attention on the manners of these birds, a pair having, for some years, built in a mass of rock rising from a rivulet at a very short distance from my residence. They are very early breeders, and their first family is, in general, fully fledged in the beginning of May. The young quit the nest before they are able to fly to any considerable distance: indeed, upon being disturbed, although but half fledged, they immediately leave it, diving with great ease the moment they reach the water, which the parent birds contrive shall be effected with expedition, as they most commonly build their large mossy nest in such part of the rock as directly overhangs the stream.

The situation of their nest is readily discovered, when occupied by the young birds, from their incessant chirping. It is similar in shape to that of the Wren, composed externally of moss, and lined with the decayed leaves of oak and other trees. The eggs are four or five in number, of a transparent white. When perched, this bird uses a constant dipping motion, at the same time flirting its tail, which is carried rather erect, in the same manner as that of the Wren. Water insects and the fry and spawn of fish form its food. Its song is variable, and it begins to utter its strong and distinct notes very early in the spring, and is the first warbler that cheers a visitor to the lonely and romantic situations it usually frequents. It is rather generally diff’used throughout Europe, inhabiting similar localities to those in Britain. During the severity of winter it leaves the smaller mountain rivulets (then becoming frequently choked with ice and snow), and resorts to the larger streams which remain open, and afford it a plentiful supply of food. This I have often observed with respect to the Tweed, and to the Annan in Dumfriesshire, upon both of which rivers it is numerously distributed during winter, but is comparatively rare in the summer and breeding season. In the latter river, when partially frozen over, I have repeatedly seen it dive from the edge of the ice into the rapid stream, and, after a submersion of some seconds, reappear with a small fish, or a caddis-worm (the larva of a species of Phryganea) in its bill.

Plate 45. represents a male bird and female bird of the natural size. Head and back part of the neck umber-brown. Upper parts black, the feathers margined with blackish-grey. Throat, eyelids, sides of the neck, and upper part of the breast white. Lower part of the breast and belly chestnut-brown J passing into brownish-black towards the vent. Under tail-coverts blackish-grey. Bill blackish- brown. Legs yellowish-grey. Irides yellowish-brown.

The female is similar to the male, except that the head is of a deeper brown, and the white upon the neck and breast is sullied in hue.

The young are distinguished by the deep-grey feathers that cover the head and back part of the neck. In them the white also extends lower down the belly towards the vent, and is crossed by fine rays of yellowish- grey or brown. A large variety with a dusky bar encircling the bottom of the neck, and the white of the breast and belly having numerous small black streaks pointing downwards, is mentioned by Latham, in the Second Supplement to his General Synopsis, under the title of the Penrith Ouzel. The other two varieties mentioned in the Appendix to Montagu’s Supplement, I should consider as belonging to a very late brood of the preceding year, and which had not acquired the complete plumage of maturity.”

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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