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Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Common Crake, Male” (Meadow or Corn Crake)

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Common Crake, Male” (Meadow or Corn Crake)

  • $ 75,000.00

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)
“Common Crake, Male” (Meadow or Corn Crake)
Original watercolor prepare for Plate 30 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes, pen and black ink on paper
Inscribed upper left: 30
Signed bottom left P. J. Selby.
Paper size: 10 1/2 x 9 1/4 in.

Selby’s description of the Common Crake also interchangably refers to this species as the Meadow or Corn Crake. He write, “The Crakes hold an intermediate station between the Rails on the one hand, and the Gallinules on the other, from the first of which they are distinguished by a shorter, thicker, and more angular bill, and from the latter in wanting the extension of the lateral membrane that borders the soles of the toes, as well as the naked callous skin (or plate) that occupies the forehead. By LINNAEUS, they were included in his genus Rallus but LATHAM afterwards, under his system, transferred them to the genus Gallimila, in which he has been followed by TEMMINCK, who places them in his first sectional division of that genus. BECHSTEIN, however, and other ornithologists of the present day, have separated them from both genera, constituting a new one for their reception, and to which they are fairly entitled, from the distinctive characters they display. Their habits are similar, in many respects to the above mentioned birds, being of a shy and solitary disposition, living concealed in the thick herbage
of meadows or marshy districts. They have the same thin and compressed shape of body, and they run with a skulking gait, and with great quickness, seldom taking wing unless suddenly surprised, or when forced to it by persevering pursuit, of course, with the exception of the times of their annual migrations. They feed on worms and insects, as well as vegetables and seeds. Their flight is awkward and heavy, and they hang their legs when only on wing for a short distance. All the British species are migratory, and come under the designation of summer visitants. The plumage of both sexes is nearly alike, differing only in the colours of the male bird being purer and brighter in tint. The young, however, are very different, and do not acquire the matured plumage till they undergo the second general moulting.

Some writers have attempted to separate the Meadow- Crake from the other species, and to make it the type of a genus; not, it would appear, from any essential difference in its characters (which, on the contrary, and particularly with respect to anatomical structure, agree with the others), but from a fancied difference in its habits, which are considered not so much approaching to aquatic as those of any of its congeners. This modification will, however, be found much slighter in reality than they who would thus separate the species are willing to allow, being in fact confined to a trifling difference in the quality and dampness of the soils these birds respectively frequent ; the Meadow Crake (and, indeed some other species), affecting rich meadows, occasionally inundated by running streams ; the others, the rougher growth of marshy grounds or stagnant waters. In all other particulars their manners are very similar, being of an equally shy and timorous nature, depending for safety more upon the concealment afforded by the long herbage in which they habitually reside, and upon swiftness of foot, than on their power of flight, as they are with difficulty roused to the latter expedient. This species is a summer visitant to us, are Periodically living in the southern and midland parts of the island in the end of April, but seldom observed in the north before the beginning of May. The first indication of its presence is given by its peculiar and well known cry of crek, crek, frequently repeated in a rough broken kind of note, not unlike the sound produced by drawing a stick along the teeth of a strong comb, and by which imitation the bird may frequently be enticed within a very short distance. This is the note of the male, and is continued until a mate be found and incubation commenced, after which it ceases. Its favouriteresorts are rich meadow grounds, near to rivers, lakes, &c. particularly such as are subject to occasional inundation. Upon the banks of the Trent below Newark, the meadows (which are of this description) are annually visited by great numbers of Crakes; and I have, in the course of an hour, killed eight or ten in a single field. They are very plentiful throughout Wales, the north of England, and Scotland, in all such low situations as afford meadows and cultivated land in the immediate vicinity of water. In the Highlands of Scotland, and the Hebrides, they also abound, and their migration extends to the Orkney and Shetland Isles. PENNANT remarks, that on first arriving in Anglesea they are very lean; but, in the midland and northern districts of England, I have generally found them in high condition, and, I think, as fat as they usually are previous to their departure in autumn. This may perhaps be accounted for on the supposition (which the observations I have made corroborate), that the Welsh and Irish shores are the first upon which these birds land, as being in the direct line of their polar migration from Northern Africa and the southern parts of Europe, and that, from the extent of their journey, they arrive exhausted and reduced, but are recruited by a short residence, or during the time spent in a gradual passage to their different places of resort. The Crake runs very swiftly, threading through the closest grass with extraordinary ease, and, unless sorely pressed, or from a failure of cover, is very unwilling to seek safety in flight. To succeed in flushing it requires the aid of a dog trained to the sport, and taught either to follow the Trail with great quickness, or to make a rapid circuit and get in advance of the bird. It flies low, and in a heavy wavering manner, with the feet hanging down, and seldom to any distance at a time. It breeds in meadows, or in the rough herbage of moist thickets, and sometimes in Nest, &c. standing corn, if near to water. The nest is composed of grass and other dried plants, a slight hole being first made in the ground, and the eggs, in number from ten to fourteen, are of a yellowish-white, slightly tinged with pink, and spotted irregularly with reddish-brown, in size nearly equal to those of the partridge, but of a more oblong shape. The young, when excluded, quit the nest, and are then covered with a black hairy down, which gives place by degrees to the usual plumage, and in less than six weeks they are able to fly. When uttering its cry, the neck of the Crake is stretched perpendicularly upwards, and the note is varied, seeming to a listener to come from different distances, and producing thus an effect similar to ventriloquism. It feeds on worms, slugs, and insects, with vegetables and seeds. I have kept this bird in confinement in apparent good health, on a diet of earth-worms, and bread steeped in milk. In this species a few of the frontal feathers possess the hard and horny tip that distinguishes the Rails; but this is not found in the others of the genus.

PLATE 30. Represent a male and female of the natural size. Bill brown. Eyes yellowish-brown. Over the eyes, and General down the sides of the neck is a streak of ash-grey. Chin and throat yellowish-white, tinged with ash-grey. Breast pale yellowish-brown, tinged with ash-grey. Belly reddish-white. Flanks and under tail-coverts pale reddish-brown, barred with reddish- white. Crown of the head and upper parts of the body deep liver .brown, each feather having a broad margin of pale-yellowish-brown, slightly tinged with oil-green. Wing-coverts pale orange-coloured brown. Quills hair-brown, tinged with reddish-brown. Legs yellowish-brown, with a tinge of grey.” (Our watercolor was prepared for the figure of the male bird.)

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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