John Gould undertook this work partly in an effort to redress the imbalance between the study of local and foreign ornithology. In his preface he stated his mission: "the Birds of Europe, in which we are, or ought to be, most interested, have not received that degree of attention which they naturally demand. The present work has been undertaken to supply that deficiency." Gould portrayed birds native to Europe in a manner that had only been thought appropriate for the colorful species of distant places, using specimens in museums and zoos in Holland, Germany and Switzerland. In this way he managed to draw much popular interest back to native birds, which were suddenly considered equally beautiful to exotic species.
Though the majority of the plates for "The Birds of Europe" were drawn and lithographed by Elizabeth Gould, John Gould employed the masterly talents of Edward Lear for the first time, and his influence can be seen in many of the plates: "There is no doubt that Edward Lear was the first person to understand the art of lithography, and to use it to its fullest potential. It was a legacy that granted the fabled works of Gould their success, and took them into the forefront of nineteenth-century illustration" (Tree). A total of sixty-eight images bear Lear's name: "they are certainly among the most remarkable bird drawings ever made, … it is evident that Lear endowed them with some measure of his own whimsy and intelligence, his energetic curiosity, his self-conscious clumsiness and his unselfconscious charm." (Hyman).
Initially employed as a taxidermist [he was known as the 'bird-stuffer'] by the Zoological Society, Gould's fascination with birds from the east began in the "late 1820s [when] a collection of birds from the Himalayan mountains arrived at the Society's museum and Gould conceived the idea of publishing a volume of imperial folio sized hand-coloured lithographs of the eighty species, with figures of a hundred birds. Gould's friend and mentor N. A. Vigors supplied the text. Elizabeth Gould made the drawings and transferred them to the large lithographic stones. Having failed to find a publisher, Gould undertook to publish the work himself; it appeared in twenty monthly parts, four plates to a part, and was completed ahead of schedule. "With this volume Gould initiated a format of publishing that he was to continue for the next fifty years, although for future works he was to write his own text. Eventually fifty imperial folio volumes were published on the birds of the world, except Africa, and on the mammals of Australia-he always had a number of works in progress at the same time. Several smaller volumes, the majority not illustrated, were published, and he also presented more than 300 scientific papers.
"His hand-coloured lithographic plates, more than 3300 in total, are called 'Gould plates'. Although he did not paint the final illustrations, this description is largely correct: he was the collector (especially in Australia) or purchaser of the specimens, the taxonomist, the publisher, the agent, and the distributor of the parts or volumes. He never claimed he was the artist for these plates, but repeatedly wrote of the 'rough sketches' he made from which, with reference to the specimens, his artists painted the finished drawings. The design and natural arrangement of the birds on the plates was due to the genius of John Gould, and a Gould plate has a distinctive beauty and quality. His wife was his first artist. She was followed by Edward Lear, Henry Constantine Richter, William Matthew Hart, and Joseph Wolf" (Gordon C. Sauer for DNB).