Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Widgeon, male”
Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)
Original watercolor prepared for Plate 52 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes
London, ca. 1820
Signed l.l.: PJ Selby
Paper size: 14 5/8 x 18 1/8 in.
Provenance: Collection of H. Bradley Martin
“A winter visitant to the British Isles, the Wigeon is the visitant more numerously, and, I may add, more generally distributed than any other species; for its habitats embrace not only the fresh-water lakes of the interior, but the whole circuit of our coasts, wherever they are suitable to its economy. Such are bays and other shores covered with a slimy deposit, the mouths of rivers, &c., all of which produce abundantly the particular sorts of vegetable food upon which this species subsists.
Vast numbers of Wigeons are annually taken in the decoys, the amount, in some of the southern counties (according to MONTAGU), surpassing that of all the other wild fowl taken collectively. In districts where the decoy has not been introduced, they are obtained by the Punt and its swivel-mounted duck-gun, or shot during the moonlit nights by fowlers, who station themselves in places where the birds are accustomed to feed, which they do after night-fall, like most of the species in this subfamily, During the early part of the winter their flesh is delicate and well-flavoured, but after Christmas (I speak of those taken on the coast) it becomes rather rank, which may be attributed to a failure of the early vegetable food, and an increased consumption of the stronger algae, and perhaps of small molluscous animals. In Northumberland, where they abound upon several parts of the coast, they are sold for eighteen-pence the couple, being half the price of the Mallard and Brent Goose. They usually make their first appearance in this county about the 20th day of September, in small companies, which are on the gradual increase till about the beginning of November, when the migration appears to be completed. Early in March they again commence their polar movement, or return to summer quarters, and by the month of April the coast is entirely deserted. The northern countries of Europe, even to very high latitudes, as well as those of Northern Asia, are the native regions of these birds; and though TEMMINCK mentions them as sometimes breeding in Holland, a parallel as low as our own, I am not aware that they have ever been ascertained to do so in Britain. At night, their time of activity, they fly in compact bodies, and are easily distinguish ed, when passing, by their peculiar whistling call-note, and from the sound of which has arisen their trivial name of Duck.
They are easily domesticated, and thrive well when supplied with plenty of water; but do not breed in confinement, at least the female, though she may occasionally lay eggs, will not provide a nest, or go through the process of incubation. It is, however, a singular fact, that a hybrid progeny has been produced between the male Wigeon and the female Pintail, although females of his own species were kept on the same piece of water. The mules from this cross, as might be expected, were barren.
It has also been known to pair with the Common Duck, in which case the eggs were also prolific. The form of the tracheal labyrinth of the Wigeon comes nearer to that of the Pintail than any other, being nearly globular; its attachment, however, to the bony arch of the larynx is different, the bottom of that capsule being nearly on the same line with the arch, whereas in the Pintail it extends considerably below it. It is also of smaller size.
The eggs of the Wigeon are stated to be eight or ten in number, and their colour a pale greenish-white.
The male has a bill of bluish-grey, with the tip and nail black. Forehead and crown pale buff-orange. The rest of the head, and the upper part of the neck, orange-brown, with small specks upon the cheeks. Chin and throat black. Lower part of the neck and breast pale brownish-purple red, tinged with ash-grey. Lower part of the back of neck beautifully barred with black and pale reddish-white. Back, scapulars, sides, and flanks finely rayed with zigzag lines of black and white.
Having their inner webs deep grey, the outer ones velvet-black, margined with pure white. Smaller wing-coverts, next to the shoulders, grey, finely powdered with white, the others pure white. The greater coverts with velvet-black tips. Speculum glossy duck-green in the centre, with the lower part and tips of the feathers black. Quills pale hair-brown. Belly and abdomen white. Under and side tail-coverts black, glossed with green. Tail brown, tinged with grey; the feathers sharp-pointed, and the two middle ones longer than the rest. Legs and toes bluish-grey.
In summer, the head and neck become spotted all over with black. The breast also, and sides of the body, acquire a reddish-brown colour, with darker bars and lines upon the latter. Back and scapulars mottled and varied with reddish-brown and dusky feathers in large bars, and others with fine black and white zigzag lines. Under tail-coverts white, with reddish-brown bars.”
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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