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Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Partridges”

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Partridges”

  • $ 45,000.00

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)
Original watercolor prepared for Plate 61 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes, pen and black ink on paper
Signed ‘P.J. Selby’ l.r.
Paper size: 10 ¼ x 13 ¼ in.
Provenance: Collection of H. Bradley Martin.

Selby’s description of the Partridge is as follows:
“This well-known species of game is abundant throughout, the kingdom, except in some of the mountainous and moory wastes in the northern counties of England, and in the Highlands of Scotland, the peculiar localities of the preceding genus. Districts well interspersed with arable land are the most favourable to the habits and economy of the Partridge; thus, an extended cultivation, which has rendered many of our British birds comparatively rare, and has caused indeed the extinction or banishment of some, has tended greatly to its increase; and we accordingly find the species most plentiful, where agriculture has received the greatest encouragement, and attained the highest perfection. The Partridge begins to pair in February, and at this season obstinate contests occur between the males for the possession of the other sex. The female seldom produces her eggs before the latter part of May, and the greater portion of the young break the shell about the middle of July. The eggs are deposited on the ground in a shallow hole scratched for the purpose, and under cover of a tuft of grass, whin-bush, or other brush-wood ; and not unfrequently in fields of clover, or amongst standing corn. They amount to from twelve to twenty, of a pale wood-brown colour.

Incubation, which occupies three weeks, is performed solely by the female, who sits very closely, and is with difficulty driven from her eggs. Montagu mentions an instance, in which a Partridge, on the point of hatching, was taken, together with her eggs, and carried in a hat to some distance; she continued to sit, and brought out her young in confinement. Several other parallel cases are related, and some not very dissimilar have come under my own observation. As soon as the young are excluded, the male bird joins the covey, and displays equal anxiety with the female for their support and defence. There can be few persons conversant with country affairs who have not witnessed the confusion produced in a brood of young Partridges by any sudden alarm; or who have not admired the stratagems to which the parent birds have recourse, in order to deceive, and draw off the intruder. Their parental instinct, indeed, is not always confined to mere devices for engaging attention; but where there exists a probability of success, they will fight obstinately for the preservation of their young, as appears from many instances already narrated by different writers, and to which the following may be added, for the truth of which I can vouch. A person engaged in a field, not far from my residence, had his attention arrested by some objects on the ground, which, upon approaching, he found to be two Partridges, a male and female, engaged in battle with a Carrion-Crow; so successful and so absorbed were they in the issue of the contest, that they actually held the Crow, till it was seized, and taken from them by the spectator of the scene. Upon search, the young birds (very lately hatched) were found concealed amongst the grass. It would appear, therefore, that the Crow, a mortal enemy to all kinds of young-game, in attempting to carry off one of these, had been attacked by the parent birds, and with the above singular success.

By a careful attention to diet, Partridges may be easily reared in confinement, and become very tame, but they have never been known to breed in this state. In some parts of England great numbers are annually hatched under domestic fowls, and brought up by hand; which are afterwards set at liberty, to increase the stock upon preserved grounds. In the above process the gapes has been found very fatal, but since the discovery of a specific reason for this distemper, the loss from such a cause may be easily prevented.

The Partridge is found to vary considerably in size, according to situation, and the different nutritive qualities of food; thus, the largest are met with in districts where an abundance of grain prevails, whilst, upon the precincts of moors, where but an inconsiderable portion of arable land is offered to them, they are much inferior in size, although perhaps by no means evincing a similar inferiority in point of flavour. The feeding time of these birds (as of all the other members of the Gallinaceous order, in a wild state) occupies two or three hours after sunrise, and again before sunset. During the middle of the day, they retire to bushes, or bask in the sun on the dry banks of hedges, and are busily engaged in dusting, and afterwards in preening their feathers. They roost upon the ground, generally about the middle of a field, choosing a part very scanty in herbage, or other cover likely to draw the attention of night-feeding animals of prey; and the whole covey sit closely crowded together. They go to rest {or jug, as it is frequently termed) a little after sunset, previous to which they may be heard calling and answering each other, after having been separated in feeding, or by any accidental cause.
This species is found throughout the greater part of Europe, but is most abundant in the temperate and northern parts. It also visits Egypt and the coast of Barbary, being migratory in some countries.

Plate 61. Male and female. Natural size. General Bill pale bluish-grey. Irides brown. Behind the eye is a naked red papillose skin. Cheeks, throat, and eye-brows Male. pale brownish-orange. Neck and breast bluish-grey, with fine zig-zag black lines. On the belly is a large patch of deep reddish-brown, in the shape of a horseshoe. Flanks grey ; the feathers banded with pale orange-brown. Back, wings, rump, and upper tail-coverts brown, with transverse black lines and spots. The scapulars and wing-coverts have the shafts of the feathers yellowish-white, edged with black. Quills blackish-grey, with brown bars. Tail reddish-orange. Legs and toes bluish-grey. Female. The female differs from the male bird in having less of the brownish-orange upon the head and throat, The feathers upon the crown of the head are also edged with white; and the upper parts of the plumage have more black spots and bars. The orange-brown mark upon the belly is also generally ill-defined, paler in colour, or entirely wanting. White, pied, and cream-coloured varieties are not uncommon.”

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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