ROBERT MITFORD (BRITISH, 1781-1870), “Teal, Male”
ROBERT MITFORD (BRITISH, 1781-1870)
Preparatory work for Prideaux John Selby’s Plate 54 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes, pen and black ink on paper
Signed in monogram ‘R. Mitford’
Paper size: 10 5/8 x 17 1/8 in.
Provenance: Collection of H. Bradley Martin.
“The Teal, one of the smallest of the Anatidae, is entitled to be included in the number of our indigenous birds, as it is known to breed in the bogs and marshy grounds of the northern counties of England, as well as on the edges of the Scottish lakes. It is not, however, to be supposed that the birds so generally spread over the kingdom during the winter, and taken in such great numbers in the decoys, and by various other devices, in the southern counties, are the produce alone of those that remain with us; they are most of them natives of more northern latitudes, and who make these islands the boundary of their equatorial movement. Our indigenous broods, I am inclined to think, seldom quit the immediate neighbourhood of the place in which they were bred, as I have repeatedly observed them to haunt the same district from the time of their hatching till they separated and paired, on the approach of the following spring. The Teal breeds in the long rushy herbage about the edges of lakes, or in the boggy parts of the upland moors. Its nest is formed of a large mass of decayed vegetable matter, with a lining of down and feathers upon which the eggs rest; these are from eight to ten in number, in size rather exceeding those of the Ring-Dove, and of a cream-white. The young, when first excluded, are covered with a dark-coloured down, that, in less than two months, gives place to a plumage similar (in both sexes) to that of the female parent. The young males do not acquire their peculiar distinctive garb till about the middle of December. The present is a night-feeding bird; commencing the flight from its diurnal retreat immediately after sun-set. During the day it reposes upon the water, or sits motionless on its very brink, with the head couched between the shoulders, or, when actually asleep, with the bill hidden under the scapulars, the usual reposing attitude of most of the feathered race. The flight of the Teal is very rapid, and, when flushed, it darts off so quickly, as to require great alertness in the sportsman, that he may gain his shot before the bird is out of distance. Its food is composed of the seeds of various aquatic plants, vegetables, insects, and mollusca. In confinement (which it bears well, and soon becomes very tame), when fed upon grain, it always moistens the food before attempting to swallow it; a habit also observed in its congener the Gargany. The bill of the Teal is formed exactly on the plan of that of the Pintail, and the two middle tail-feathers, though not elongated in the same proportion, are longer than the rest, and pointed. The American Green- winged Teal of WILSON has by some been considered a distinct species, on account of the white bar on the shoulders, seen in many of the males; the author, however, thinks it identical with the European bird, and I believe Dr RICHARDSON and Mr SWAINSON are of the same opinion. The distribution of the present species extends over a great part of Europe and Northern Asia, as well as the American Continent; and during winter, the period of its migratory movements, it is very abundant in France, Holland, Germany, &c. The trachea of the male is of small but equal diameter throughout its length ; the lower larynx is formed of a large bony arch, on the left of which is a small globular ampulla, about the size of a pea. The flesh of this bird is very tender, and highly prized at the table.
PLATE 54. Fig. 1. The Male. Bill black. Irides brown. Crown of the head, cheeks, sides and front of the neck, reddish-brown. Enclosing the eye, and proceeding as far as the nape of the neck, is a large patch or band of glossy duck-green, bordered by a white line. Chin black. Sides of the lower part of the neck, back, scapulars, and flanks, beautifully rayed with zigzag lines of black and white. Wing- coverts hair-brown, tinged with grey; those covering the secondaries having yellowish tips, and forming a bar across the wings. Middle of the speculum glossy duck-green; with the feathers on either side velvet- black. Front of the neck and breast cream-white, with round black spots. Belly and abdomen white. Under tail-coverts cream-yellow, divided and bordered by a band of velvet-black. Tail wedge-shaped, consisting of fourteen feathers, pale hair-brown, margined with white. Legs clove-brown.
Towards the end of summer the male loses in a great measure his distinctive markings, acquiring a plumage not very different from that of the female; which he retains till the general moult.
Fig. 2. The Female. Head and hinder part of the neck pale sienna-yellow Female, streaked with deep hair-brown. Throat and cheeks yellowish-white, spotted with hair-brown. All the upper parts brownish-black, deeply margined with yellowish-brown and white. Under parts yellowish-white. Speculum similar to that of the male. Legs tinged with yellow.
The young of the year, of both sexes, strongly resemble the female bird ; though usually rather darker in the tints of their plumage.”
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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