Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “A Guillemot and Chick”
“A Guillemot and Chick”
Original watercolor prepared for Plate 79 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, pencil and ink on paper
Signed ‘P.J. Selby’ l.l.
Paper size: 15 7/8 x 10 1/4 in.
London, ca. 1820
Provenance: Library of H Bradley Martin.
Selby’s text for the Guillemot is as follows: “It is in fact (at least during the summer or breeding season), to be found throughout the whole extent of our coasts, congregated in large bodies, wherever the shores offer a precipitous rocky barrier, or islands occur, affording fit places for, its reproduction. Such are the ledges and clefts of rocks, where these birds incubate close to each other; making no nest, but each depositing its large solitary egg upon the bare incubation, and often sloping surface, along which it is secured from rolling by its conical shape, being very large at one end, and tapering rapidly towards the other; thus, when disturbed, merely describing a circle within its own length. The egg varies in colour and markings, but the prevailing tint is a fine verdigris-green, blotched with brownish-black. White varieties, without or with few spots, also frequently occur.
Incubation lasts for a month, and when the young are first excluded, they are covered with a thick down, of a blackish-grey colour above, and white beneath. This gradually gives place to the regular plumage, and in the course of five or six weeks from the time of hatching, they are capable of taking to the water. During the time they remain upon the rock, the parents supply them plentifully with the young of the herring, and herring-sprats, which form the principal food of this and other species belonging to the Alcadee. Up on the Northumbrian coast these Guillemots breed in great numbers on the Fern Islands, a locality that has afforded me ample opportunities of attending to their economy, and watching the changes they undergo. They have here selected the summits of three fine isolated pillars, or masses of whinstane (trap-rock), that rise upwards of thirty feet above the level of the sea. Upon these the eggs are laid as close as possible, merely allowing room for the birds to sit upon them, which they do in an upright position. The appearance they make when thus seated in a dense mass, is curious, and the interest is increased by the number of Kittiwakes (Larus tridactylus), which hover around, and which breed in the small side clefts, or on the projecting angles of the rock ; and by the nests of two or three Crested or Green Cormorants, which, from the unusual confidence they display in continuing to sit upon their eggs, even when overlooked from the opposite precipice at only a few yards distance, seem to be well aware of the security of the station they have chosen. The great body of the breeding birds arrives towards the end of March or the beginning of April, at which time most of them have acquired the perfect nuptial plumage. I have, however, obtained them much earlier, and when the white upon the throat was only giving place to the pitch -coloured black that distinguishes them till after the sexual intercourse. After the period of reproduction they leave the rocks, and betake themselves entirely to the ocean, when the old birds undergo the moult that assimilates them to the young, or Lesser Guillemot of authors. At this time they often lose so many of their quill-feathers, as to be totally incapable of flight; but these are soon reproduced, and the colonies which had made the English coasts their summer quarters, retire to more southern latitudes to pass the winter months. Their place in this country is but sparingly supplied by a few stragglers from the great bodies that, being bred in still higher latitudes, make the friths of Scotland and its isles the limitof their equatorial migration. Much difference of opinion prevailed amongst ornithologists a few years ago, as to whether this bird in the summer plumage was not specifically distinct from that state of it in which, together with the young, it has been called the Lesser Guillemot. But the question seems now to be satisfactorily determined by the investigations that have been instituted, and the increased attention latterly bestowed upon the changes, that so many birds periodically undergo, and which prove their identity beyond a doubt. It may not, nevertheless, be amiss to glance at the reasons advanced by MONTAGU, in favour of this distinction, as however plausible they may at first sight appear, and (as proceeding from a practical ornithologist and keen observer) entitled to attention, I cannot consider them to be of the weight that many feel inclined to allow. In his observations upon the Foolish Guillemot, in the Appendix to his Ornithological Dictionary, he considers the elder bird as never changing its plumage, but always retaining the pitch-brown head and neck; an opinion that led him into his subsequent error, and adopted from having once obtained specimens of the Guillemot in this state of plumage, in the latter part of January, upon the southern coast of England. That such a specimen should have been met with at this season, is no more than might naturally be expected, and what has also occurred to myself; as the assumption of the nuptial dress must always be dependent upon the time at which the bird had completed the duties of reproduction in the preceding season, and undergone the moult that immediately follows. This, from my own observations, frequently takes place as early as the end of June, or the beginning of July, and in such cases the other change will of course be comparatively early. I am, therefore, inclined to think, that what MONTAGU has described as the young of the Foolish Guillemot, was in fact an old bird, having acquired at an early period the white throat or winter plumage; as I possess at present a specimen (certainly an adult), that agrees with his in almost every respect, and the wings of which are nearly perfect, having only lost one or two of the quill-feathers. That a great proportion of the birds met with in the state of the supposed Lesser Guillemot, should be of inferior size, and deficient as to the perfect development of the bill and its terminal notches, is not extraordinary, and only in accordance with our observations on other species ; but at the same time many individuals are also found in this plumage, with all the characteristics of the old Guillemot, both as to size, form, and length of bill, &c., particularly amongst that body that winters in the friths and sheltered bays of Scotland; and I have now in my collection specimens of the adult bird, in the garb of MONTAGU’S lesser species, that were taken upon our own coast. Another reason advanced by him for considering them distinct, is the abundance in which they are found in the white-throated state upon the coast of Scotland, during the winter, compared with their rarity upon the English coast; observing, at the same time, that the numerous colonies which make the English shores their summer or polar retreat, depart, after obeying the dictates of nature, to more southern climates. Now, this in fact is only consistent with the laws of migration, the birds that winter in Scotland being the summer inhabitants of much higher latitudes, to which they again retire upon the approach of spring, when they are succeeded by those which had migrated farther to the southward in the autumn of the preceding year. It may, indeed, appear striking, that they should not extend their migration in equal numbers along the English coast, but sufficient inducement for limiting their flight, will, I think, be found in a comparative view of the two countries. Scotland is deeply indented by its friths, salt-water lochs and bays, all of which abound with the herring species, the principal food of the Guillemot, and to be met with even in the depth of winter; and these are the situations it inhabits. The English coast, on the contrary, possesses no such attractions during winter for this piscivorous ‘bird, as the her rings and sprats, which through the spring and summer approached the coast, then retire to the deeper parts of the ocean, where, in all probability, they are almost beyond the reach of these and other diving birds. Our English summer visitants retire to the Mediterranean, to the coasts of Italy, Sicily, &c. where they find an ample supply of even richer species of their favourite fish, as the Anchovy and Sardine. It may also be observed, that among the myriads that breed in the northern isles of Scotland, and still higher latitudes, none have been found during the period of incubation, or immediately preceding it, in the plumage assigned to the Lesser Guillemot; but all are distinguished by the pitch-coloured head and neck, the appropriate livery of the Foolish Guillemot of our more southern coasts, and of which they display all the essential characters. MONTAGUES error, therefore, with respect to this bird, and also the Razor Bill, is to be entirely attributed to his want of information regarding the change that takes place in the adults immediately after incubation. The Guillemot is of a squat and thick shape, and of great weight, in proportion to its dimensions. It swims with much buoyancy, and is an excellent diver, in which occupation the greater part of its existence is passed.
It shews but little apprehension of danger, frequently admitting the approach of a boat within oar’s length, from whence it has evidently obtained its trivial name. On account of the shortness of its wings, it rises with difficulty from the surface of the water, along which it skims for a short distance, but at a rapid rate, in consequence of the quickly-repeated strokes of its pinions. During the breeding season it is generally compelled to make a circuitous flight before it can attain a sufficient elevation to reach the ledge of the rock selected for that purpose.
PLATE 79. represents the Adult Bird, in the summer or breeding plumage.
Head, throat, and upper part of the neck, pitchy black; General the feathers being small and very close set. From the posterior angle of the eye is a streak or line formed by Adult bird, the division of the feathers. Dorsal plumage greyish-black; in some tinged with brown. Tips of the secondaries, and the under plumage, white. Flanks streaked with blackish-grey. Legs brownish-black. Bill black; in length from the forehead to its tip one inch and three quarters. Inside of the mouth fine saffron-yellow.
Throat, and sides of the neck, white; with a dark streak Winter behind the eye. Crown of the head, nape and back P lumae-part of the neck, greyish-black. In other respects the same as in summer. The bill of the younger birds is shorter, and the notch at the tip not so well defined. They are also generally inferior in size.
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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