Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Little Bittern”
Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)
Original watercolor for Plate 6 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes on paper
Signed lower left: PJSelby
London, ca. 1820
Paper size: 19 x 14 in
Frame size: 32 1/2 x 27 1/2 in
“This is one of the smallest of the Ardeada, scarcely equalling, in bulk of body, the Spotted Crake, or the Water Rail. Very rare In England it is a very rare visitant; not more than five or six having come under the notice of our naturalists. Three of these MONTAGU mentions, as having been killed in Devonshire, in the course of the summer of 1808; another is recorded by Dr FLEMING, as killed at Sunda, one of the Orkney Islands, in the winter of 1805; and PENNANT has introduced this bird into the Appendix to his British Zoology, in consequence of an adult specimen, which was shot as it perched upon a tree on the banks of the Severn, at Shrewsbury. To this list may be added another instance, in which a Little Bittern was killed at Blagdon, in Northumberland, the seat of Sir M. W. RIDLEY, Baronet, in May 1810; and figured by BEWICK, in his Supplement to the British Birds.
Though deviating in some respects from the typical form of Botaurus, particularly in the length and straightness of the bill, which approaches closely to some of the smaller aberrant species of the genus Ardea (and forming the passage, as it were, from one group to the other), I have thought it better to be retained in that genus to which its affinity appears the strongest, and where the proportion and form of its legs and feet, and the clothing of its neck, indicate the true Bittern. This bird is an inhabitant of woody marshes, particularly where reeds and other aquatic herbage grow very thick, amongst which it passes a solitary life, feeding upon frogs, Food, the fry of fish, insects, and reptiles; and seldom taking wing, unless when suddenly disturbed. Its usual position, when at rest, is that of sitting upon the whole length of the tarsus, with the neck bent, the head thrown back, and the bill pointing almost perpendicularly upwards. It breeds among Nest, &c. rushes, or upon hummocks in the marshes, making a large nest of broken reeds, grass, and other dry materials, and lays five or six eggs of a pale asparagus-green colour. It is found in most of the temperate continental parts of Europe, and also in Asia and Africa, wherever there are localities suitable to its habits. It does not exist in America, but is represented by a very nearly allied species, Ardea ex’ills.
PLATE 6. Fig. 1. represents the adult bird of the natural size. The crown of the head, the back, scapulars, exterior General webs of the secondary quills, and the tail, are black glossed with green. The cheeks and neck of a pale sienna-yellow, tinged with lilac-purple. The wing co- verts sienna-yellow ; with the throat, and under wing coverts white. The under parts of the body are red- dish-white, with a few hair-brown streaks upon the flanks. The greater quills are greyish-black. The bill, from the forehead, is two inches long, of a gamboge-yellow colour ; with the culmen and tip brown. The legs and toes are wax-yellow, tinged with green. The tibias are clothed with feathers to the tarsal joint. The male and female are alike.
Fig. 2. The young bird after the first moulting. The crown of the head is blackish-green. The back and scapulars chestnut-brown, margined with yellowish-white. On each side of the throat is a spot of white. Front part of the neck yellowish-brown, mixed with streaks of white; sides of the neck reddish-brown. Feathers of the breast deep liver-brown, with a glossy lustre; and margined with yellowish- white. Belly and flanks yellowish-white, with streaks of brown. Tail, blackish-green. Legs pale olive-green. Bill yellowish-brown.”
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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