Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Red-breasted Merganser, female”
Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)
Original watercolor prepared for Plate 28 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes, pen and black ink on paper
Signed ‘P.J. Selby’ l.r.
Paper size: 10 1/8 x 13 1/8 in.
Provenance: Collection of H. Bradley Martin.
“The Great, or, as it is frequently called, the Solitary Snipe, is known to us as an occasional visitant, from a few stragglers being now and then driven upon our coasts during their periodical migrations, the immediate direction of their latitudinal flight being much to the east of the longitude of the British Islands. Such instances, as far as I have been able to ascertain (and all those which have fallen under my own observation), have occurred during the autumnal or equatorial movements of these birds, when, quitting the colder regions of the northern parts of Europe, where they breed and pass the summer months, they seek more genial climates, and in which, from the mildness of the winter and absence of severe frost, they are certain of obtaining a constant supply of food. MONTAGU mentions birds of this species having been killed in the counties of Kent, Wiltshire, and Lancashire. In Northumberland several instances have come under my own knowledge within the last eight or ten years, and the specimen from which the figure in Plate XXIII. is taken, was killed in October 1822 on some boggy ground within a short distance of Twizell. In the year 1826, being a very dry and warm season, they seem to have visited us in more than usual numbers, as several individuals were killed in different marshes; and I am informed that not less than five or six were shot on one morass not far from Sedgefield, in the county of Durham. In general appearance the Great Snipe bears a strong resemblance to the common species (Scolopax Gallinago), and in all probability this resemblance has frequently caused the former to have been con- founded with the latter, or at any rate to have been considered merely as a large variety of it. Its bulk is always much greater, and its Weight averages about eight ounces and a half. The bill being smaller and shorter in proportion to its size, the tarsi thicker and not so long, and the belly and abdomen always barred with brown and white, afford never-failing indications of the species. When flushed, the Great Snipe generally utters a cry in some degree similar to that of the common species, but shorter and hoarser; its flight is not so rapid, nor does it perform the same twisting evolutions when first forced upon wing, but moves in a direct manner, not unlike the Woodcock. Like the rest of the genus, it feeds upon worms and insects, obtained by boring the marshy ground and mud with its bill, which shows in its post-mortem examination the same roughness near the tip that distinguishes all the true Snipes and Woodcocks, and which, as I have before observed, is caused by the drying and consequent contraction of the nervous papillae distributed over its surface. This species is spread over a great part of Continental Europe, particularly towards the east and over the north of Asia. In most countries it is migratory, retiring during summer to the vast marshes of the north. TEMMTNCK mentions having received a specimen from North America; but I have never obtained it from that country, nor does WILSON, or any other American ornithologist, include it in the list of birds belonging to that quarter of the globe. The Snipe common to that country, long supposed to be Scolopax Gattinago, is now ascertained to be a distinct species.
The Great Snipe breeds in marshes, selecting a tolerably dry spot near to some standing water, and the materials of the nest, which are scanty, are collected from the decayed Nest, &c. grasses and water-plants immediately around. The four eggs which it lays are very similar to those of the Common Snipe, being (according to the authors who have described them) of a yellowish- white, or very pale oil-green, blotched with dark brown. As a delicacy, its flesh is in high estimation, being equal, if not superior, to that of the common species.
PLATE 28. Fig. 2. Represents this bird of the natural size, from a very perfect specimen killed near Twizell in October 1822, and which weighed nearly nine ounces. Bill of a pale brown colour, inclining to flesh-red at the General base, ‘with the tip blackish -brown. Between the bill and eyes is a narrow streak of rich chestnut-brown. Crown of the head blackish-brown, with a few specks of reddish-brown, with a central streak of cream-coloured white. Eye streak, cheeks, and throat, cream-yellow, finely speckled with brown. Hind part of the neck pale ochreous yellow, spotted with brown. Fore part of the neck yellowish-white, with large angular brown spots. Back brownish-black, varied with pale chestnut-brown ; the outer webs of the feathers having a broad yellowish-white margin. Shoulders and scapulars yellowish-brown, and on each feather a large black bar near the tip, and the outer webs with white edges. Tertials barred with black, and margined with a double line of black and yellowish- white. Lesser wing-coverts marbled with black and yellowish-brown, and tipped with white. Greater coverts black, tipped with white. Quills dusky, or deep hair-brown. Breast, sides, and flanks white, with triangular transverse bars of deep hair-brown. Belly the same, with smaller hair brown undulations or bars. Thighs barred, hair-brown and white. Tail consisting of sixteen feathers; the two centre ones black for two-thirds of their length ; the remaining part of a bright chestnut-brown colour, with a narrow black bar near the tip, which is itself reddish-white; and the outer feathers white, barred with hair-brown. Upper tail- coverts yellowish-brown, barred with black. Legs yellowish-grey, tinged with 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.
or by email at loricohen@aradergalleries.
We Also Recommend
Aert Schouman (1710-1792) A Crownbird at the Foot of a Tree, a Terrace in the Background