Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Common Buzzard, Female”
Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)
“Common Buzzard, Female”
Original watercolor for Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes, pen and black ink on paper
Initialed ‘PJS’ lower left and inscribed plate 1.6
Paper size: 18 7/8 x 14 15/16 in.
Provenance: Collection of H. Bradley Martin.
It preys upon leverets, rabbits, game, and small birds, all of which it pounces on the ground. It also devours moles and mice, and, when pressed by hunger, will feed on reptiles and insects.
It breeds in woods, and forms its nest of sticks, lined with wool, hay, and other materials, and will sometimes occupy the deserted nest of a crow. The eggs are two or three in number, larger than those of a hen, and are of a greenish- white, either plain, or spotted with reddish-brown. The young, according to Pennant, remain in company with the parent birds for some time after having quitted the nest, — a circumstance at variance with the usual habits of birds of prey. It is common in all the wooded parts of Europe, and, according to Temminck, very abundant in Holland. In France, this bird is killed during the winter for the sake of its flesh, which is esteemed delicious eating. Although previously noticed as a North American bird by Wilson and the Prince of Musignano, it was met with by the Expeditions under Captain Franklin and found to extend as far north as the 57th parallel of Latitude. It is described, and beautifully figured, in the second volume of the Fauna Boreali- Americana. It is also an inhabitant of the Madeiras; from whence I have seen specimens, agreeing in every respect with our own.
The Buzzard is found to vary greatly in plumage, and has consequently been multiplied, by some ornithologists, into several species, as will appear by a reference to the synonyms. I have constantly endeavoured to verify the several varieties that have come under my examination, by comparison with the descriptions and figures given by different ornithological writers; and amongst the varieties that have thus occurred, I may enumerate the Ash-coloured Buzzard of Latham and Edwards, and one of a uniform reddish-brown colour.
Plate 6. Figure of the natural size. Cere and irides lemon-yellow. Bill bluish-black; broadat the base, but much compressed towards the tip; with the cutting edge of the upper mandible distinctly sinuated. Crown of the head and upper parts of the body hair-brown, inclining to broccoli-brown, the margins of the feathers edged with yellowish -white and yellowish-brown. Chin and throat white, with a few brown streaks upon the shafts of the feathers. Breast yellowish-white, Avith oblong brown streaks, which upon the belly become small and arrow-shaped. First four primary quills deeply notched, the basal part of the inner webs white, with brownish-black bars; the rest of the quills, and the secondary ones, barred with shades of brown. Third, fourth, and fifth quills having their outer webs strongly sinuated. Sides and thighs dark dove-brown, the feathers edged with white and yellowish-brown. Tail square, with about twelve blackish-brown bars. Legs and toes yellow. The front of the tarsi scutellated. The upper part of the toes reticulated. Toes short, united at the base by a membrane. Hind and inner toe each with four shield- shaped scales; outer toe with five; and the middle one with eight. Claws black, strong, but not much hooked; and very sharp.”
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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