Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Black Grous, male”
Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)
“Black Grous, male”
Original watercolor prepared for Plate 58 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes on paper
Signed lower right: PJSelby
London, ca. 1820
Paper size: 18 1/8 x 16 5/8 in
“Inhabiting the forests and mountainous districts of Scotland and Ireland, has placed the Black Grous at the head of this genus in the British Fauna. The present species is now confined, in the southern parts of England, to a few of the wildest uncultivated tracts, such as the New Forest in Hampshire, Dartmoor and Sedgemoor in Devonshire, and the heaths of Somersetshire. It is also sparingly met with in Staffordshire, and in parts of North Wales, where it is under strict preservation. In Northumberland it is very abundant, and has been rapidly increasing for some years past, which may be partly attributed to the numerous plantations that, within that period, have acquired considerable growth in the higher parts of the county, as supplying it both with food and protection. It abounds throughout the Highlands of Scotland, and is also found in some of the Hebrides. — The bases of the hills in heathy and mountainous districts, which are covered with a natural growth of birch, alder, and willow, and intersected by morasses, clothed with long and coarse herbage, as well as the deep and wooded glens so frequently occurring in such extensive wastes, are the situations best suited to the habits of these birds, and most favourable to their increase. During the months of autumn and winter, the males associate, and live in flocks, but separate in March or April; and, being polygamous, each individual chooses some particular station, from whence he drives all intruders, and, for the possession of which, when they are numerous, desperate contests often take place. At this station he continues early every morning and in the evening during the pairing season, repeating his call of invitation to the other sex, and displaying a variety of attitudes, not unlike those of a Turkey Cock; accompanied by a crowing note, and by another similar to the noise made by the whetting of a scythe. At this season his plumage exhibits the richest glosses, and the red skin of his eye-brows assumes a superior intensity of colour. With the cause that urged their temporary separation, their animosity ceases, and the male birds again associate, and live harmoniously together. The female deposits her eggs in May; they are from six Nest,&c. to ten in number, of a yellowish-grey colour, blotched with reddish-brown. The nest is of most artless construction, being composed of a few dried stems of grass placed on the ground, under the shelter of a tall tuft or low bush; and generally in marshy spots, where long and coarse grasses abound. The young of both sexes at first resemble each other, and their plumage is that of the hen, with whom they continue till the autumnal moult takes place ; at this time the males acquire the garb of the adult bird, and, quitting their female parent, join the societies of their own sex. — The food of the Black Grous, during the summer, chiefly consists of the seeds of some species of Jimcus, the tender shoots of heath, and insects. In autumn, the crowberry, or Crawcrook (Empetrum nigrum), the cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos), the whortlebei’ry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), and the trailing arbutus (Arbutus uva-ursi), afford it a plentiful subsistence. In winter, and during severe and snowy weather, it eats the tops and buds of the birch and elder, as well as the embryo shoots of the fir tribe, which it is well enabled to obtain, as it is capable of perching upon trees without any difficulty. At this season of the year, in situations where arable land is interspersed with the wild tracts it inhabits, descending into the stubble grounds, it feeds upon grain.
In the adult state, the Black Grous displays great shyness of character, and, after the autumnal moult, is not easily approached within gunshot. Frequent attempts have been made to domesticate this bird, but without success; and, through all the trials that have taken place, it has never been known to breed in confinement. It seems to be a species more widely dispersed throughout the central parts of Eu- rope than any of the rest, and is found tolerably abundant in Germany, France, and Holland. In the more northern countries, Denmark and Sweden, Norway and Russia, it is very common.
The flesh of this bird is sweet and well favoured, not of so deep a colour as that of the lied Grous, and the internal pectoral muscle, which is remarkably white, is esteemed the most delicate part.
Plate 58. Male bird of the natural size. Bill black. Head, neck, breast, back, and rump, black, with blue and purple reflections. Belly, wing-coverts, and tail, pitch-black. Secondary quills tipped with white, and forming, with the adjoining coverts, a band across each wing. Under tail-coverts pure white. Eyebrows naked, vermilion-red. Legs clothed with blackish-grey feathers to the toes; which last are furnished with lateral fringed appendages.
Plate 58. The female. Natural size. Head and neck ochreous-yellow, rayed with black. Upper parts orange-brown, barred and speckled with black. Greater wing-coverts tipped with white. Breast pale- orange or chestnut-brown, barred with black. Belly greyish-white, barred with black and brown. Under tail-coverts white, rayed with black. Tail slightly forked, orange-brown, spotted with black; the tip greyish- white. The young, until the autumnal moult, resemble the female.”
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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