Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Bimaculated Teal, Female”
Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)
“Bimaculated Teal, Female”
Original watercolor prepared for Plate 55 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes, pen and black ink on paper
Inscribed: plate 2.55
Signed bottom lower left: P.J. Selby
Paper size: 10 7/8 x 16 5/8 in.
Provenance: Collection of H. Bradley Martin.
PLATE 55. Represents the Male bird of the natural size, from the specimen in the museum of the Zoological Society. General Bill blackish-grey, passing towards the base and edges into orange-yellow. Front, crown, and occiput very deep reddish-brown, glossed with purplish-black, and passing upon the hind part of the neck into deep violet-purple. Between the bill and eyes, and behind the ear-coverts, are two large irregular patches of chestnut-brown, margined and varied with white. Sides of the neck and cheeks glossy duck- green, the rest of the upper part of the neck and throat being greenish-black. Front of the lower part of the neck, and sides of the breast, reddish-brown, with oval black spots. The middle part of the breast pale reddish-brown, also spotted with black. Ground colour of the mantle pale sienna-yellow, undulated with black lines. Scapulars the same, tipped with glossy Scotch blue. Wing-coverts hair-brown, the lower range having pale wood-brown tips. Speculum dark green, glossed with purple. Upper and under tail-coverts greenish-black, glossed with purple. Tail wedge-shaped, with the two middle feathers black, narrow, acuminate, and much longer than the rest, which are hair-brown, margined with white. Belly and abdomen yellowish-white, with undulating black lines, most distinct upon the flanks. Legs and feet pale orange.
PLATE 55. Female. Natural size. Chin and throat pale buff. Head and neck the same, but Female, with spots and streaks of black, those upon the crown of the head being larger and more distinct. Lower part of the neck, and sides of the breast, pale yellowish-brown, with blackish-brown spots. Flanks variegated with yellowish-brown and blackish-brown. Upper parts blackish- brown, the feathers being deeply margined with reddish-white and pale yellowish-brown. Lesser wing-coverts hair-brown, with the lower tier deeply tipped with pale reddish-brown. The upper half of the speculum green, with purple reflections ; the lower half velvet-black, with white tips to the feathers. Quills and tail hair-brown, the latter margined with white and reddish- white. Legs orange.”
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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