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Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Common Linnet, Male and Female”

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Common Linnet, Male and Female”

  • $ 75,000.00

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)
“Common Linnet, Male and Female”
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: Common Linnet, Male Female.
Signed lower right: P.J. Selby.
Paper size: 8 1/2 x 7 3/4 in.

Selby’s description of the Common Linnet is as follows: “This bird has been considered by most of our authors as two distinct species, under the titles of the Common or Brown Linnet and the Greater Redpole. This error has evidently arisen from the altered appearance it bears at particular ages, and during the different seasons of the year. These changes in all probability had not been suspected, as they certainly had not been traced by the earlier naturalists, and on the authority of their reputation, succeeding writers sanctioned such mistakes, without giving themselves the trouble of farther investigation, till Montagu, who united practical research with scientific knowledge, professed (in the Ornithological Dictionary) his conviction of their forming but one species; and my own observation and experiments tend to confirm his opinion. Mr Bewick, however, in the Supplement to his work on British Birds, still continues to believe in the existence of two distinct species, for so we must understand him (although he has brought the synonyms of the two supposed species), since in a note following the description’ and figure of his Greater Redpole or Brown Linnet, he says that “it loses the red breast in autumn, and regains it in spring; in this it differs from the Grey Linnet, whose plumage remains the same at all seasons.” From his description of the Grey Linnet (the usual Northumbrian name of this bird) as given in the first volume of his work, it can be no other than the Common or Brown Linnet of a particular age, although he has attached to it the Linnean synonyms of the Lesser Redpole.

If Mr Bewick’s observations on the plumage of the Linnet were made upon caged birds, I am not surprised at his assertion of its always retaining the same appearance, for I have repeatedly verified the fact of its never acquiring, under confinement, those brilliant tints which distinguish it, at a particular period of the year, when in a state of liberty. I will adduce one instance strikingly to the point in question. For some particular purpose of observation, a Linnet was shot more than two years ago, towards the close of summer, when the plumage shewed its most perfect nuptial tint; and happening to be only winged, it was put into a cage, where it soon became familiarized to its situation, and still continues. About the usual time, in the autumn of that year, it moulted, and acquired the winter dress of the Common Linnet, which it has retained ever since, without displaying, at the accustomed season, any of the brilliant red that adorned it in the wild state. This Linnet is very common throughout Britain, extending as far as to the Orkneys, where it is abundant. During the summer it resorts to waste lands and commons, in the upper parts of the country, where it breeds.

The nest is generally built in furze, if convenient, or in Nest, &c. some other low bush, and is formed of moss and stalks of grass interwoven with wool, and lined with hair and feathers. The eggs are four or five in number, of a bluish-white, speckled with pvn-plish-red colour. In winter these birds assemble in very large flocks, and descend to the sea-coasts, where they continue to reside till spring again urges them to pair, and seek their upland haunts. — They feed upon the smaller class of seeds, as of the flax, thistle, dandelion, &c., and particularly on those of the cruciform plants.

The song of the Linnet, although short, possesses much sweetness ; and its owner is, on this account, frequently kept in a state of confinement.

Plate 45. Fig. 3. Male bird, in the summer plumage, and of the natural size. Bill deep bluish-grey ; not so much compressed towards General the point as that of Lhiaria minor. Forehead and breast of a bright carmine-red. Throat and under part of the neck yellowish-white, streaked with brown. Crown of the head, nape and sides of the neck, bluish- grey ; in many instances varied Avith a few darker streaks. Back, scapulars, and wing-coverts, chestnut- brown, with the margins of the feathers palest. Flanks pale brownish-red. Middle of thi belly and the vent greyish-white. Quill-feathers black, with more or less white on the basal-half of their webs, and forming a distinct bar across the wings, when closed. Tail considerably forked, with the two middle feathers wholly black, and pointed; the rest black, margined both on their inner and outer webs with white. Legs and toes brown.

In younger individuals, the red upon the breast and head is not so pure in tint, nor to the same extent as in the older birds. The grey upon the crown of the head and the neck is also more varied with spots and streaks.

The female. Natural size. Inferior in size to the male bird. Head and upper parts of the body umber-brown; the margins of the feathers passing into yellowish-brown. Wing-coverts chestnut-
brown. Throat and sides of the neck yellowish-white, streaked and varied with yellowish-brown. Breast and flanks pale reddish-brown, streaked with umber-brown. Middle of the belly yellowish-white.

The winter-plumage of the male (after the first year) is nearly as follows : Crown of the head varied with large black spots, which occupy the centre of the feathers. Back and scapulars chestnut-brown, but deeply margined with pale yellowish-brown. Breast reddish-brown, with the tips of the feathers reddish white. Flanks with large oblong-brown streaks.”

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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