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ROBERT MITFORD (BRITISH, 1781-1870), “Little Crake”

ROBERT MITFORD (BRITISH, 1781-1870), “Little Crake”

  • $ 50,000.00

“Little Crake”
Preparatory work for Prideaux John Selby’s Plate 30 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes, pen and black ink on paper
Initialed lower left: R.M.
Paper size: 8 1/4 x 7 1/2 in.

Selby’s description of the Little Crake follows the Common because both are illustrated in Plate 30. He wrote of the Little Crake, “The little Crake rather exceeds in size the preceding species, to which it bears a close resemblance in shape and colour. It may, however, always be distinguished from the other by the comparative slenderness of its bill, the greater length of its wings (which, when closed, reach nearly to the tip of the tail), and by the naked portion of the tibia being longer and more apparent than in Crex Baillonn. In con- sequence of this slight modification in the form of the bill, and its greater length of wing, Dr LEACH, in his Catalogue of the British Museum, separated it from the other Crakes, and gave it the generic name of Zapornia (an apparent transmutation of Porzana) ; in which distinction he has been followed by Mr STEPHENS, the continuator o SHAW’S Zoology. I have, nevertheless, ventured to retain it amongst the Crakes, thinking that the very slight difference it exhibits is not of sufficient importance to warrant a generic division. Like the Crex Baillonii it is of rare occurrence, and can only be considered as a visitant of that character. Its first notice, as a British species, is contained in MONTAGU’S Supplement to his Ornithological Dictionary, under the name of the Little Gallinule (Gallinula minuta), where a specimen he received from Mr TUCKER, and apparently a young bird, is accurately described : this bird, it appears, was shot near Ashburton, in Devonshire, in the year 1809. Since that time, few individuals have, I believe, been noted; one, however (an adult), now in the possession of the Rev. T. GISBORNE, of Yoxall Lodge, Staffordshire, and Prebendary of Durham, was killed near Derby, and from which the figure in this work is taken. The habits of the Little Crake are similar to those of the other species, and it is found in similar localities, viz. marshes, moist meadows, the reedy banks of rivulets, &c. In the eastern and warmer parts of Europe it is very abundant, but becomes more thinly disseminated towards the north, being of occasional occurrence only in most of the provinces of France, and also in Holland. Ac- Nest, &c. cording to TEMMINCK, it makes its nest in rushes and other thick herbage, constructed chiefly of decayed and broken reeds; and lays seven or eight eggs, of a yellowish or greenish-white (jaunatres), with longitudinal spots of olive-brown. It feeds upon insects, worms, slugs, &c.

PLATE 30. Fig. 4. Represents it of the natural size, from the above mentioned specimen in the possession of the Rev. Mr GISBORNE. General Bill five-eighths of an inch long, slender, and of a fine sap-green colour. Irides crimson-red. Throat, sides of the head, and neck, breast, and abdomen, deep bluish-bird, grey. Crown of the head, back part of the neck, and upper parts of the body, deep oil-green, tinged with brown. Down the mesial line of the back is a broad streak or patch, composed of feathers marbled with black and white. The scapulars have a longitudinal bar of white, encircled with black, near the margins of the feathers. Smaller coverts plain oil-green, the greater ones having white tips, surrounded by a line of black. Vent and under tail-coverts blackish-grey, transversely barred with white. Quills and tail hair-brown, tinged with oil-green. Legs and toes sap-green. Tarsus one inch in length. Middle toe, with its claw, one inch and a half long. Wing-spine small and short.

In the female, the eyebrows and cheeks are pale grey. Female. The throat greyish- white. Neck and breast of a paler grey, slightly tinged with yellowish-brown. The dark mesial line on the back having fewer white spots.

The young have few or no distinct white spots upon the Young. upper parts of the body ; and the fore part of the neck, the breast, and belly, are of a yellowish- white. The flanks, vent, and under tail-coverts brown, barred with pale yellowish-brown.”

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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