Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Jackdaw”
Original watercolor prepared for Figure 1 Plate 31 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, pen and ink on paper
Signed ‘P.J. Selby’ l.l.
Paper size: 9 3/4 x 12 3/4 in.
London, ca. 1820
Provenance: Library of H Bradley Martin.
Selby illustrated both the Magpie and the Jackdaw on the same page. He described the Jackdaw: “This well-known species is an inhabitant of all the cultivated districts of England and Scotland. The belfries of churches, old towers, and large deserted buildings, are its favourite abodes. These are its usual breeding places, but where such situations do not occur, it has recourse to the holes of decayed tress, or to the ledges of rocks, and has been known even to build in a rabbit burrow.
The nest is composed of sticks, and lined with wool and other soft materials. The eggs, which vary from four to seven, are of a pale greenish-blue, spotted with blackish-brown, rather confluent at the larger end. — The Jackdaw is an omnivorous bird, feeding upon worms, insects, grain, fruit, eggs of various birds, and carrion. It is gregarious, often associating in considerable numbers with Rooks during the autumn and winter. It can be easily domesticated, soon becomes remarkably familiar, and may be taught to articulate various words distinctly. It is, however, at the same time very mischievous, and, like the raven, has its peculiar hiding-places, where it not only deposits part of its provision, but whatever it can purloin in the course of its domestic rounds.
It is generally found throughout Europe, and, according to Temminck, is very abundant in Holland.
Plate 31. Fig. 1. Natural size. Bill black. Irides greyish-white. Top of the head black, with violet reflections, the feathers distinct and rounded. Back part of the head and nape of the neck dark smoke-grey, the feathers open and silky in texture. Upper parts greyish-black. Having coverts and secondary quills black, glossed with blue and violet. Under parts bluish-black. Legs, toes, and claws, black.
White varieties are sometimes met with, and in these the irides are red. Others entirely black, or black and white, are mentioned by different authors.”
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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