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Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “King Eider Duck”

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “King Eider Duck”

  • $ 150,000.00

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)
“King Eider Duck”
Original watercolor prepared for Plate 71 of Illustrations of British Ornithologyy
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes on paper
Signed lower left: PJSelby
London, ca. 1820
Paper size: 18 x 14 1/2 in
Frame size: 31 1/4 x 28 in

Selby’s description of the male and female King Eider is as follows:
“The limit assigned to this species in Britain is considerably to the north of that of the Common Eider, as it has not been met with to the southward of the Orkneys, and the other northerly Scottish Isles. In one of the former (Papa Westra), Mr BULLOCK, proprietor of the late London Museum, found it breeding in the month of June; but as he appears only to have met with a single nest during his tour, and the bird is mentioned by PENNANT as only sometimes visiting the Orkneys, it can scarcely be considered as entitled to the phrase used by Mr STEPHENS, in the Continuation of SHAW’S General Zoology, viz. u a bird common in the Orcades and other parts of Scotland”” In Greenland, Spitzbergen, and other countries of the Frigid Zone, up to very high latitudes, it is found in great abundance, in numbers equal to the Common Eider; and with which it frequently associates, as we learn from Captain SABINE, in his Memoir of the Birds of Greenland. Its habits are also akin Food. to those of the other, and its food is of the same nature. The down of the King Eider is of equal fineness and elasticity, and is collected by the natives indiscriminately with Nest,&c. that of the preceding kind. The nest is formed of algae, grass, moss, &c. according to what the locality may supply, and the eggs are in number from four to six, very similar in size and colour to those of its congener; and which, like them, are covered with the down plucked from the parent bird as incubation proceeds. From the figure given by Captain SABINE, of the lower part of the trachea of this species, it appears of similar formation to that of the Common Eider; the tympanum being nearly of the same size, and of the same flattened globular shape. The bronchi are also much alike, that proceeding from the enlargement being of a greater diameter towards its centre, and both suddenly contracting where they join the lungs. The King Eider is supposed, and I believe correctly, to be the same length of time in attaining maturity as the other species. By the Greenlanders the flesh is much esteemed, and the gibbous part (or elevated plates) of the bill is considered a great delicacy. The skins of these birds, sewed together, are formed into various comfortable articles of clothing.

PLATE 71. represents the Male and Female, rather below the natural size. Bill vermilion-red, with the nail flesh-red. The frontal General plates of the bill, which are very large and perpendicular, deep orange. Legs and toes ochreous-yellow, with the webs darker. Frontlet line that surrounds the frontal plates, under eyelid, and the figure like a V on the throat, are deep velvet-black. Crown of the head, and nape of the neck, fine bluish-grey. Cheeks pistachio-green. The superciliary line and breast pale ochreous-yellow. Mantle, lesser wing-coverts, and sides of the rump, white. Scapulars, greater coverts, curved tertials, rump and tail-coverts, belly and abdomen, ink-black. The border of the wings, greater quills, and tail, brownish-black.

The female so closely resembles in her colours the female of the Common Eider as to render minute description unnecessary. She may, however, always be distinguished from the other by the form of the frontal plates, which, instead of being horizontal, are nearly vertical.

The young males resemble the females for the first year, and the changes seem to occur like those of the Common Eider.”


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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