Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Red-Throated Diver”
Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)
Original watercolor prepared for Plate 78 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes on paper
London, ca. 1820
Paper size: 16 x 21 1/2 in
Frame size: 27 1/2 x 32 in
Selby’s description of the Red-throated Diver is as follows:
“It is much more numerously and generally dispersed throughout the British Islands than either of its congeners, its winter migrations extending to the southern districts of England. It inhabits bays and inlets upon the coast, and the mouths of large rivers, ascending these latter through the course of the tide in pursuit of its prey, which consists of the fry and smaller species of fish. In the Thames it is a great devourer of the sprat, from its partiality to which, it has, amongst the fishermen there, obtained the name of Sprat-loon. It is also occasionally found more inland, residing upon our lakes and rivers till driven by the severity of the season to the unfrozen waters of the ocean. The greater part of those that visit us are (as might be expected from the time required to attain maturity), in their adolescent plumage, and of these the birds of the year form the larger proportion. Adult specimens are therefore comparatively rare, and might perhaps be estimated at not more than one in fifty. This species is widely spread throughout the Arctic Regions of Europe, Asia, and America; and in the latter, according to Dr RICHAEDSON, it is abundant upon the coasts of Hudson’s Bay, and on the lakes of the interior, its haunts reaching even to the extremity of Melville peninsula. In Europe it retires during summer (if we except the few that breed on the northern Scottish lakes) to high latitudes; but during its winter or equatorial migration, is spread along the different continental coasts, and through the various lakes and rivers as far to the northward as Italy. In the Orkneys, as stated by Low, it breeds annually in a lake amongst the hills of the Isle of Hoy, and the nest is so situated that the bird can step from it with ease into the water. It forms it of moss, and a few stems of grass or aquatic plants mixed with a quantity of its own down. The eggs are two in number, rather long, and equally rounded at each end ; their colour is not mentioned by Low; but Dr RICHARDSON describes those from North America as of a plain oil-green, to which TEMMINCK, in his account, adds a few brown spots. It is, therefore, probable, that they are subject to some variation, from an immaculate to a spotted appearance. When fairly on wing, the Red-throated Diver flies with great strength and swiftness, and often at a considerable height ; but, except to descend from the lakes to the sea, or to perform its migrations, it seldom thus exerts its pinions, trusting, in avoidance of danger, more to its powers in diving ; and this it performs with as much ease as its congeners, remaining nearly as long submerged. MONTAGU, in the Supplement to his Ornithological Dictionary, under the article Speckled Diver (the young of this species), says that the distance between the place of immersion and emersion, in a bird which he pursued upon a canal, averaged from eighty to ninety yards ; and that the rate of progress beneath the surface was between six and seven miles in the hour, whilst by swimming it did not exceed four and a-half. This species utters at times loud cries, and also hoarse croakings, which, having been observed by the natives to precede foul weather, have obtained for it the name of the Rain Goose in the Orkneys, where all the larger sea-fowl receive the appellation of Goose, and the smaller ones that of Duck.
PLATE 78. represents the Adult Bird, killed in the spring. Bill blackish-grey, two inches and two-eighths in length Adult bird. from the forehead to the tip ; the upper mandible strait, the lower one with a long ascending angle, giving to the bill the appearance of being slightly recurved; tomia of both mandibles much inflected and very sharp. Sides of the head, chin, and sides of the neck deep smoke- grey. Crown of the head blackish-grey; the feathers being margined with smoke-grey. Nape and hind part of the neck glossy blackish-grey, margined with white.
Sir WILLIAM JARDINE had a specimen of the Roller sent to him from Shetland, where it was killed, as a rare and curious Duck. Fore part of the neck having a large patch of deep orange-brown. Lower part of the neck, and sides of the breast, white, with the central parts of the feathers blackish-grey. Under plumage silvery white, except the flanks, which are deep clove- brown. Upper plumage deep clove-brown, with a slight glossy green reflection. Irides red. Out- side of the legs greenish-grey ; inside livid, or purplish-white, tinged with blue. Membrane of the toes the same.”
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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