Cart 0
Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Sabine’s Snipe”

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Sabine’s Snipe”

  • $ 75,000.00

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)
“Sabine’s Snipe”
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.

Selby’s description of Sabine’s Snipe is as follows: “This recent addition to the list of British birds, was first recognised by Mr VIGORS, and described by him under its present title in the fourteenth volume of the Transactions of the Linnean Society, from an individual killed in Queen’s County, Ireland, in August 182, and which, fortunately for science, was sent to him on the same day that it was shot, as presenting a remarkable deviation from the usual plumage of the common species. This specimen now enriches the collection of the Zoological Society in London, having been presented to it by Mr VIGORS, together with a numerous and very valuable assortment of other birds. A second instance afterwards occurred, in that of a female (agreeing in every respect as to plumage and general proportion with the bird first described) which was shot on the banks of the Medway, near Rochester, in October 1824, and is now pre- served in the excellent collection of Mr DUNNING of Maidstone. Since that time, no instance of the capture of this species has come to my knowledge, although I have used all diligence on the subject, not only in England and Scotland, but also in Ireland, where it was first discovered, and where the nature of the soil, and the abundance of marshy tracts, are peculiarly favourable to birds of this genus. The above indicates that, as a species, it is very sparingly distributed throughout the kingdom ; and, from the circumstance of no skin or specimen having been hitherto obtained from any other part of the globe, it would appear to be equally rare in such countries as have been examined with attention, as far as regards their ornithological productions. I do not, however, make these remarks, as questioning in any degree its claim to be considered a distinct species (of which I entertain no doubt, both from the accurate description of Mr VIGORS, and from personal inspection of the original specimens), but merely as noticing its present apparent rarity. It is not at all improbable, but that it may be discovered in abundance in some hitherto unexamined part of the world, or where ornithology has been little attended to ; and I need scarcely add, what is well known to most practical naturalists, viz. that species, in every department of nature, are frequently very restricted and local in their distribution.

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.”

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. 

Please feel free to contact us with questions by phone at 215.735.8811,
or by email at 

We Also Recommend