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Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Brown Snipe, Summer Plummage” (Brown Longbeak)

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Brown Snipe, Summer Plummage” (Brown Longbeak)

  • $ 75,000.00

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)
“Brown Snipe, Summer Plummage” (Brown Longbeak)
Original watercolor prepared for Plate 24 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes, pen and black ink on paper
Signed ‘P.J. Selby’ l.r.
Paper size: 8 ½ x 10 5/8 in.
Provenance: Collection of H. Bradley Martin.

Selby’s description of the Brown Snipe is as follows:

“The bird now before us belongs to North America, and Very rare visitant has been hitherto only twice met with in Europe, one specimen having been killed in Sweden, and the other in England, upon the coast of Devonshire. This latter fortunately came into the hands of the zealous MONTAGU, and was thus introduced into the list of British birds, as an occasional, though very rare visitant. A full description of this species is given by WILSON, in his North American Ornithology, bearing all the marks of that graphic and characteristic style, by which his writings are rendered so generally interesting. From that account, its habits and manners appear to differ greatly from those of the true Snipes and Woodcocks, approaching much nearer to those of the Godwits and Tringas; and he adverts in particular terms to the distinctive characters it possesses. It inhabits the sea coasts that abound in marine marshes, or display an extent of soft muddy shore, and is never found in the interior of the country. Upon the coasts of New Jersey, where WILSON made his observations, it arrives early in April, on its return from its equatorial or winter migration, when it has nearly acquired the nuptial plumage; and again in the beginning of August, on its way southward, after having passed the summer in higher latitudes, where it breeds. It flies, he observes, in very large flocks, and performs many evolutions over the marshes, sometimes wheeling, coursing, and doubling along their surface; then shooting high in the air, then separating in various bodies, uttering at the same time a kind of quivering whistle. Such evolutions I have myself also frequently seen performed by the Knots and other species of the Tringas, when associated in large flocks. Some idea of the numbers of these birds may be formed, when the above-mentioned writer tells us, that they occasionally settle so close together, that eighty-five have been killed by a single discharge from a musket, and as their flesh is excellent, and highly esteemed at the table, they are of course eagerly sought after, during their stay in the country, and mown down in incredible numbers by the American sportsmen. At low water they frequent the sand-bars and mud flats, and, from the contents found by WILSON in the stomach of those he dissected, seem to feed principally upon small univalve mollusca. They seldom associate with other species, but keep in flocks by themselves. The identification, and colour, &c. of the eggs remain undescribed.

PLATE 24. Fig. 2. represents this bird, under the title of the Brown Snipe, in the summer plumage, and of the natural size. Summer Crown of the head blackish-brown, having the feathers margined with pale reddish-brown. Between the bill and eyes is a dark streak. The eye-streak and chin white, tinged with reddish-brown. Nape and back part of the neck blackish-brown, margined with yellowish-brown. Upper part of the back and scapulars black, beautifully margined, and varied with pale reddish-brown and white. The tertials black, with oblique narrow transverse bars of pale brownish-red. Lower part of the back, rump, and tail white, barred transversely with black. Fore part of the neck, breast, flanks, and thighs pale orange-brown, spotted with black. Belly and abdomen reddish-white. Vent and under tail-coverts white, tinged with reddish-brown, and bar-red with black. Legs and toes greenish-grey. Bill having the point black, and the base wrinkled, and of a deep greenish-grey colour.

In the winter the plumage of this bird: The eye-streak, cheeks, and chin white. Between Plumage the bill and eye is a dusky streak. Crown of the head, neck, and upper part of the breast, deep-grey, tinged with brown. Upper part of the back and scapulars clove-brown, the feathers being margined with ash- grey and reddish-brown. Wing-coverts hair-brown, with paler margins. The greater coverts, as well as the secondary quills, margined and tipped with white. Lower part of the breast and belly white. Under tail- coverts and vent white, barred with deep hair-brown. Rump and tail as in the summer plumage. Quills deep hair-brown, the shaft of the first quill being white.”

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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