Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Sabine’s Snipe”
Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)
Original watercolor prepared for Plate 24 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes, pen and black ink on paper
Signed lower left: P.J. Selby.
Inscribed upper left: 24
Paper size: 10 3/8 x 8 3/8 in.
In giving the distinctive characters of this species, I can- not do better than quote Mr VIGORS’S own words : “ It is at once distinguished from every other European species of Scolopax, by the total absence of white from its plumage, or any of those lighter tints of ferruginous-yellow, which extends more or less in stripes along the head and back of them all. In this respect it exhibits a strong resemblance to Scolopax saturata of Dr HORSFIELD, from which, however, it sufficiently differs in its general proportions; and I find no description of any other extra-European species of true Scolopax which at all approaches it in this character of its plumage. In the number of its tail-feathers, again, which amount to twelve, it differs from Scolopax major, which has sixteen, and Scolopax Gallinago, which has fourteen ; it agrees, however, in this point, with Scolopax Gallmula, which also has but twelve ; but it can never be confounded with that bird, from the great disproportion between the essential characters of both: the bill alone of Scolopax Sabim exceeding that of the latter species by one-third of its length. In the relative length and strength of the tarsi it equally differs from all. These members, although stouter than those of Scolopax Gallinago, fall short of them by / O ths of an inch; they are much weaker, on the other hand, than those of Scolopax major, although they nearly equal them in length.” Such are the characters that distinguish it from all the other species of Snipes, and which, independent of the peculiarity of plumage, are sufficient to entitle it to rank as specifically distinct. Of its general economy I can say nothing; but, judging from analogy, it may be inferred that in this point it bears a close r2semblance to the rest of the genus.
PLATE 24. Fig. 1. Represents the bird of the natural size, taken from the above mentioned specimen, in the museum of the Zoological Society. General Head, throat, and neck brownish-black, speckled with obscure chestnut-brown. Belly and vent brownish-black, barred with chestnut-brown. Back and scapulars black, with obscure chestnut-brown bars and spots. Under wing-coverts brownish-black. The tail consists of twelve feathers, the basal half of which are black; the remaining part chestnut-brown, with black fascia. Bill (which is two inches and seven-tenths in length) blackish-brown, passing into yellowish-brown at the base. Legs and feet blackish-grey. Tarsus an inch and a quarter.”
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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