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Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Peregrine Falcon, Young Female”

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Peregrine Falcon, Young Female”

  • $ 150,000.00

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)
“Peregrine Falcon, Young Female”
Original watercolor prepred for Plate 15 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes, pen and black ink on paper
Signed ‘PJ Selby’ lower right and inscribed ‘plate 1.15’
Paper size: 18 3/8 x 14 5/8 in.
Provenance: Collection of H. Bradley Martin.

Selby’s description of the Peregrine Falcon includes both Female and Young, and is as follows: “The uncertainty in which the history of this species was long involved, appears to have arisen from the error of earlier writers, in considering the Falco Peregrinus and Falco communis, with its enumerated varieties, as two distinct species.

Deficiency of observation, and consequent want of an accurate knowledge of the various changes of plumage the bird undergoes in its progress to maturity, naturally led to this effect; and we accordingly find, that the bird hitherto described as the Falco communis, the type of the supposed species, and its varieties, must have been originally figured from an immature specimen of the Falco Peregriiius, the species now under consideration.

By tracing the gradual advances, and noting the gradations of colour of this bird from a nestling to maturity, the several varieties of the supposed F. communis may also be connected, and the individuals brought back to the same line of descent, from the different synonyms under which they have
been hitherto known. Thus, the Falco Hornotinus, or Yearling Falcon, appears to be the young bird in its nestling or early plumage. The Falco J’uscus I should consider as a bird of the same age, but a female.

Passing over the White-headed (F. leucocephalus and White Falcon (F. albus), to be regarded only as accidental varieties, (though it might admit of a doubt, whether they are not links in the gradation of the change of plumage, which, let it be remembered, is regulated by certain and fixed laws), we come, in the next place, to the Falco communis of authors. At this period of its life, it has undergone a moult; and though a marked difference still exists between it and the old Peregrine Falcon, the advance towards maturity is sufficiently perceptible. The intermediate links in the chain upwards are supplied by the F. gibbosiis, the F. ruber indicus, and the F. maculatus, which last shews the transi- tion to the adult F. Peregrinus.

In England and Wales the Peregrine Falcon is rare, and is only found indigenous in rocky or mountainous districts. The Highlands and Northern Isles of Scotland appear to be the situations most favourable to it, and in that part of the kingdom it is numerous and widely diffused. The most inaccessible situations are always selected for its eyry, and its nest is placed upon the shelf of a rock. It lays four or five eggs, in colour very similar to those of the Kestrel, but considerably larger.

In America it has a very wide distribution, being found in both divisions of that continent, and in a great varietv of latitude, as it changes its hunting grounds with the season. In summer its range extends to Hudson’s Bay and Melville Peninsula, from whence specimens were brought by Captain Parry, and where it preys chiefly upon the water-fowl, particularly the Long-tailed Duck {Havelda glacialis). Captain King also met with it at Port Famine, in the Straits of Mgellan ; and the species appears to be the same in New Holland.

In daring disposition it equals most of its congeners, and many interesting traits in its history are related by different writers, amongst which, some in the Supplement to the Ornithological Dictionary will well reward the reader’s attention. I may be allowed to add the following instance, as having happened under my own observation, and as exemplifying not only its determined perseverance in pursuit of its prey, when under the pressure of hunger, but as arguing also an unexpected degree of foresight. In exercising my dogs upon the moors, previous to the commencement of the shooting season, I observed a large bird of the Hawk genus hovering at a distance, which, upon approaching, I knew to be aPeregrine Falcon. Its attention was now drawn towards the dogs, and it accompanied them, whilst they beat the surrounding ground. Upon their having found, and sprung a brood of grouse, the falcon immediately gave chase, and struck a young bird, before they had proceeded far upon wing. My shouts and rapid advance prevented it from securing its prey. The issue of this attempt, however, did not deter the Falcon from watching our subsequent movements, and another opportunity soon offering, it again gave chase, and struck down two birds by two rapidly repeated blows, one of which it secured,’ and bore off in triumph.

The flight of this species, when pursuing its quarry, is astonishingly rapid, almost beyond credibility. By Montagu it has been reckoned at 150 miles in an hour. Colonel Thornton, an expert falconer, estimated the flight of a Falcon, in pursuit of a Snipe, to have been nine miles in eleven minutes, without including the frequent turns. This sort was formerly much used in falconry, and was flown at the larger kinds of game, wild ducks and herons. In its unreclaimed state it preys upon the different sorts of game, wild geese, wild ducks and pigeons.

Plate 15. An adult female, in three-fourths of the natural size. General Bill deep bluish-grey at the base, black towards the tip; very strong, and armed with a prominent tooth. Cere and space surrounding the eyes lemon-yellow. Irides brown. From the corners of the mouth is a bluish-black patch or streak pointing downwards. Head greyish-black. Upper parts of the plumage deep bluish-grey, marbled with a darker tint. Quills brownish-black, the inner webs barred with white ; the first quill having a deep sinuation near the tip of the inner web. Tail-coverts bluish-grey, barred with greyish-black. Tail barred alternately with black and grey, the tips of the feathers white. Throat and breast yellowish- white. Belly, vent and thighs greyish, transversely barred with greyish-black. Under wing-coverts white, barred with black; tarsi short and strong. Toes very long, particularly the middle one, colour gamboge-yellow. Claws black, hooked, and strong. The wings, when closed, reaching to the end of the tail.

Plate 15. Represents an immature bird, and of the size Young of nature ; indicating a change of pkunage, by a few grey feathers upon the back and scapulars. The crown of the head, and upper parts blackish-brown, the occiput with a few white feathers. Chin and under part of the neck white, with black streaks. Breast, belly, and thighs white, with oblong cordated blackish-brown spots. Tail barred with bluish-brown and black. Legs and toes inclining to leek-green.”

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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