Cart 0
Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Common Wild Swan”

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Common Wild Swan”

  • $ 90,000.00

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)
“Common Wild Swan”
Original watercolor for Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes on paper
Signed lower left: PJ Selby
London, ca. 1820
Paper size: 26 x 21 in
Frame size: 33 x 27 1/2 in

Selby’s description of the Common Wild Swan is as follows:
“This handsome and stately bird is known in the Orkneys and Western Islands of Scotland as a regular winter visitant; but in England its appearance is not so certain, being governed by the state of the season. Should the winter prove generally mild, such as we have just experienced (1831-2), few, if any, Swans are seen ; as, under such circumstances, they are able to obtain subsistence in higher latitudes. It is only, therefore, when the winter sets in with unusual rigour in the northern parts, and the lakes and rivers (their source of food) become entirely frozen over, that they extend their equatorial migration to more temperate climates. In such seasons they usually appear with us in small flocks, from five perhaps to thirty together, that take up their abode upon the lakes, rivers, and inundated meadows; and where, if unmolested, they will remain till March, or the approach of spring, when they again wing their way to the regions of the north. On referring to the seasons in which Swans have appeared in more than usual numbers in this country, they will all be remembered as remarkable for the severity and long continuance of frost. Thus in 1785, and in 1789, these birds were remarkably numerous, and extended their flight to unwonted southern latitudes, having visited Champaigne and other parts of France, as well as some of the larger rivers beyond the Alps. In the winters of 1813, 1814, 1819, 1823, 1828, and 1829, all more or less severe, they were very commonly met with in different parts of England, and occasionally destroyed in great numbers, as may be gathered from the statement of Mr COOKE, in his description of the Whistling Swan, viz. that in 1823, sixty of these birds were exposed for sale in London in one day.

It is probable that some of these might belong to the recently discovered species, Cygnus Bewickii, which there is now every reason to suppose has visited this country for many years, although constantly confounded with the present species, to which, in outward appearance, it bears a very close resemblance, being only rather inferior in size. The geographical distribution of these birds embraces the northern regions of Europe, Asia, and America, in all of which they are abundantly found. In summer, they retreat to very high latitudes to breed and rear their young, and those inhabiting our parallel of latitude are then to be met with scattered over Norway, Iceland, Lapland, Spitzbergen, &c. In Asia, they are numerous in Kamschatka, Northern Siberia, and other polar districts of that continent, and they are described as abounding on the unfrequented borders of the upper lakes of North America; and are mentioned in Captain FRANKLIN’S Journal as amongst the first birds of passage that come from the south upon the breaking up of the long polar winter. In these dreary regions, where man finds but a precarious subsistence by fishing and the chase, the return of the Swan is anxiously looked for, on account of the various benefits it confers; its flesh and eggs affording wholesome and invigorating food, and its skin, when dressed with the down, supplying V variety of clothing, of remarkable softness and warmth. A^few pairs, it is said, occasionally remain upon some of the outer Orkney Islands, and there breed upon the margins of the r fresh water lochs ; but these can only be considered as stragglers, the great body retiring (as I have above remarked) to higher latitudes for that purpose. The Nest ‘ &c ‘ nest of the Wild Swan is formed of the withered parts of reeds, rushes, and other aquatic herbage, to a considerable thickness; and the eggs, from five to seven in number, are of a pale oil-green or greenish-white colour. In six weeks the young are excluded, but it is upwards of three months before they become fully fledged. In Iceland, to the inhabitants of which the down and feathers are of great value, not only for domestic comfort, but as an article of barter, they are hunted down and killed in great numbers in the month of August, at which time the old birds are unable to fly, from having cast their quill-feathers. At this season the natives assemble in bodies, in the places where Swans are most abundant, attended by dogs, and mounted upon small but active horses, purposely trained to pass over bogs and through marshy soil; the chase then commences, and many are ridden down; but the greater number are caught by the dogs, which always seize by the neck, a mode of attack that causes the bird to lose its balance and become an easy prey.

The fabulous account of the sweet singing of the Swan before death, which gave rise to so much beautiful allusion in the writings of the ancient poets, is now universally exploded; and the voice of the present species (oftener heard than that of any other) is generally allowed, when produced singly, to be piercing and harsh. It consists of two notes, and has (not unaptly) been compared to the discordant union of the modulation of the Cuckoo, with the scream of the Gull, or the sound of the clarionet in the hand of a beginner. Some, however, still assert, that when on the wing in large flocks, or resting on the water, their united cries, becoming softened by distance, are not unpleasant to the ear. This I can readily believe, for, under such circumstances, I have even found the incongruous mixture of sound from Gulls, Guillemots, and other tribes of sea fowl (when collected about their breeding stations) mixed with the whistling of the breeze, and the murmurs of the intervening water, to reach the ear not very dissimilar to that of a band of martial music; and I have before observed, in the account of the Brent Goose, that the tumultuous cackling of those birds (harsh as it may be individually), when heard at a distance, has been compared to the enlivening cry of a pack of hounds. To the known effect produced by the association of ideas must doubtless be attributed the great pleasure which the Icelanders display upon hearing the cries of the Swan, which they compare to the notes of a violin; but as a writer justly observes, this is not to be wondered at, for they hear them at the termination of a long and dreary winter, when the return of this bird to their shores is the earliest harbinger of spring, foretelling a speedy thaw and release from a tedious confinement. In dimensions and weight the present species is commonly less than Cygnus Olor, in its tame or semi-domesticated state, though adult males are sometimes met with that equal the average size of the latter. It may, however, always be distinguished from it externally by the different form and colour of the bill, the position of the legs, difference of carriage, along with other peculiarities ; and internally, the conformation of the trachea exhibits a remarkable difference. This part, instead of being a strait and simple tube, as in Cyg. Olor, is prolonged, and enters a large cavity hollowed out of the keel of the sternum, generally to the depth of three and a-half or four inches, where it is doubled back upon itself like a trumpet ; and which inflection is al- ways vertical, never forming a loop or horizontal bend, as in Cygnus Bewickii. After its egress from this cavity, the tube is again turned upwards, and then, undergoing a considerable diminution in diameter, terminates exactly upon the ridge of the sternum in a compressed bony lower larynx, or bone of divarication, shaped like the mouth-piece of a bas- soon, and to which the bronchi, measuring upwards of three inches in length, are attached. The flight of the Swan is usually at a great elevation, and in a straight line; and as its wings are long and ample, its progress, with a favouring breeze, is astonishingly rapid, and has been reckoned to exceed sometimes 100 miles in an hour. This velocity renders it a difficult bird to shoot on wing, where so much allowance is necessary to be made, according to the supposed distance of the object. When caught alive, it soon becomes very tame, as seen in the instance mentioned by MONTAGU; and I have also, in several cases, known it survive for a long time, and thrive well, when provided with plenty of water; it refuses, however, to associate with the common or mute species. The food of the Swan consists of the roots, leaves, and stems of aquatic plants, in obtaining the former of which its length of neck is of essential service, which it has also the power of keeping submerged for a long time ; but as this is done by the mute species perhaps in an equal degree, it can- not be attributed to the peculiar form of the trachea, an idea that has been suggested by different ornithologists. In the present species, the elastic process or joint, in the upper mandible, which enables it to be opened to a considerable extent, is very prominent, and more easily distinguished than in many others of the Anatidae, in whom it is hidden by the knob, or by the feathers of the brow. When swimming, the neck is borne erect, at a right angle with the body, and seldom arched, as is the custom of the Common Swan; but in walking (which is performed in a heavy and awkward manner), the head is lowered, and the neck reclines over the back, in order to preserve the equipoise of the body.

PLATE 47. Represents this bird in scarcely one-third of the natural size. Average length five feet; breadth from seven to eight. Bill four inches long from the tip to the brow, black, and having the basal part covered with a lemon-yellow- Adult. coloured cere, that, extending backwards, encircles the eyes. Head and nape of the neck generally speckled with pale orange-yellow; the rest of the plumage in adults being pure white. Legs black.

The young birds are of an uniform pale grey, with the Young, cere and naked skin around the eyes pale flesh-red, Legs reddish-grey.”

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. 

Please feel free to contact us with questions by phone at 215.735.8811,
or by email at 

We Also Recommend