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Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Female Gadwall Duck and Female Pintail Duck”

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Female Gadwall Duck and Female Pintail Duck”

  • $ 145,000.00

Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)
“Female Gadwall Duck and Female Pintail Duck”
Original watercolor prepared for Plate 51 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes on paper
Signed lower left: PJ Selby
London, ca. 1820
Paper size: 17 3/4 x 24 1/4 in.

Selby’s description is split in his text between the general gadwall and pintail sections. His description of the Gadwall is as follows:
“The Gadwall is rather a rare visitant with us, and is seldom seen, except about the period of its vernal migration, when some few pairs occasionally visit the marshes of Norfolk and the adjoining counties, being probably driven to that coast of our island by adverse winds, out of the usual line of their flight. This seems to be farther to the east-ward, as the bird is plentiful upon the continental parts of Europe, in our parallels of latitude. Thus, according to TEMMINCK, it abounds in Holland, breeding in the great marshy tracts of that country, as well as in other northern districts. The specimens I have been enabled to see in a fresh state were all met with in the poulterers’ shops in London, during the months of April and May, and those now in my collection were thus obtained. Though other writers have mentioned it as being a winter visitant to our shores, I have never seen it except at the period above stated ; and MONTAGU, who probably, in consequence of this idea, only looked for it during the winter, never succeeded in obtaining a recent specimen. The species is widely distributed through-out the northern and eastern parts of Europe, and is also found in North America, having been described by AViLsox as a winter visitant to- various parts of the United States. These birds frequent the lakes, rivers, and marshes of the interior, particularly those abounding in reeds and other rank aquatic herbage, and seldom resort to the sea-coasts. They are strong on wing, and in rapidity of flight surpass most of the other nearly allied species, but are more remarkable for their quickness in diving, and their great propensity to it as the method of avoiding danger, or even observation. They Nest, &c. breed in the most covered parts of the marshes, and lay from ten to twelve eggs each, of a pale oil-green colour. Their food consists of insects and their larvae, aquatic plants, and seeds. The voice of the Gadwall is not unlike that of the Common Wild Duck, only rather hoarser. The trachea of the male bird is slightly enlarged in its diameter at about two-thirds of its length, but becomes narrower as it approaches the lower larynx; this consists of a large bony arch, with a globular, or rather pyriform, bladder attached to the left side, being in shape much like that of the Common Mallard, but smaller. The flesh of this species is held in high estimation.

The Female. Crown of the head glossy black, mixed with greyish-white. Female, Over the eyes is a lightish streak, intermixed with black. Chin and throat pure white. Cheeks yellowish-white, streaked with hair-brown. Breast pale buff, with the central parts of the feathers deep-brown. Upper parts deep brown, the feathers being margined with pale buff ; with the flanks and sides the same. Belly and abdomen white. Lesser wing coverts hair-brown, margined paler. Speculum as in the male. Tail marbled with brown, buff and white.”

And of the pintail: “The slender neck, pheasant-like tail, and superior lightness of model in this Duck, have bestowed upon it an appearance of elegance unknown to most of the other species. Periodical It is with us a regular winter visitant ; and considerable numbers are annually taken in the decoys of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, &c. MONTAGU says that it is most abundant in the north of England and Scotland, and especially in the Orkney Islands. This assertion, however, I must in part contradict, as the result of long observation tells me it is of rare occurrence in the northern counties of England; and the same may be said of the southern districts of Scotland, which Dr FLEMING confirms in his History of British Animals. With respect to the Orkneys, I cannot speak so confidently, although it appears probable, that what had been represented to him as the present species, was in fact the Long-tailed Duck (Havelda glacialis)^ which is found in great numbers during the winter in the bays of this group of islands. The Pintail has a wide geographical range, being met with in all the northern parts of Europe, Asia, and America, and retires in the summer to breed in high latitudes. Its equatorial migration extends as far as Italy; and during its periodical flight to the southward, it occurs abundantly in Holland, France, Germany, and other continental states. The marshes of the interior parts of the country, and fresh- water lakes, are its usual places of resort, Food, being rarely found upon the sea- coast. Its food consists of insects and their larvae, the seeds of aquatic plants, particularly of some species of Epilobium, and vegetables. It is of a shy and timorous disposition; and in North America, where it is plentiful, often disappoints the wildfowl shooter, by giving the signal to its numerous associates before he can advance within gunshot. Upon rising, when alarmed, the birds of this species cluster confusedly together, and (as WILSON observes), if within distance, give the sportsman a fair opportunity of raking them advantageously. They seldom dive, seeming only when wounded to have recourse to that manoeuvre, in which case, the bird coming up under the bow of the boat, frequently endeavours to conceal itself, by moving round with it. Like many others of the Anatida (particularly of the species belonging to this group), the plumage of the male Pintail, towards the end of summer, or after the sexual intercourse is completed, undergoes a remarkable change, and becomes very like that of the female. This appears to me to be an actual change of colour in the feathers, rather than a renewal of them ; and the same change is observable in the Mallard, and the males of the Teal, Wigeon, &c. It also prevails, if not in all, at least in some species of the genus Mergus, as I have noticed it in Mergus serrator. The Pintail is easily domesticated, but rarely breeds in confinement. A hybrid progeny has been produced between this bird and the Wigeon ; and, to such an extent do the sexual propensities seem to be affected in this state, by difference of food, and other causes, that MONTAGU mentions a male Pintail in his menagerie, which, for want of the other sex, shewed an inclination to pair with a female Scaup, and even with a Bernacle Goose. He farther adds, that one of them did pair with a tame duck, but that none of the eggs (upwards of twenty in number) proved to be fecundated. Its usual notes are soft and subdued, but, according to WILSOX, it also frequently makes a chattering noise. The season of courtship is indicated in the male by suddenly raising himself upright in the water, and bringing his bill close to his breast, uttering at the same time a low soft note. This gesticulation is often followed by a jerk of the hinder part of the body, which is then also thrown above the water. The labyrinth of this species consists of a round long bladder, situated on the left side of the arch of the lower larynx; its upper surface being nearly even with the top of the arch, but its lower one reaching much below it. Its texture is very fine, and in young birds may be indented by slight pressure; but becomes brittle in adults. The nest of this species is made in the rushes and strong herbage of marshes, and the eggs are from eight to ten, of a bluish-white. Its flesh is sweet and well- flavoured.

The Female, also of the natural size. Forehead and crown pale chestnut-brown, streaked with black. Cheeks and neck pale ochreous yellow, speckled with black. Chin and throat plain cream-yellow. Sides of the breast hair-brown, barred and tipped with white. Mantle and scapulars amber-brown, barred and varied with pale buff-orange and white. Tertials hair-brown, margined with white. Lesser and greater wing-coverts pale broccoli-brown, edged and tipped with white. Speculum hair-brown, glossed with green ; the feathers having white tips. Quills hair-brown. Tail deep hair brown, with imperfect bars of white and pale buff-orange; the two middle feathers exceeding the rest in length about half an inch Belly and abdomen yellow-ish-white, indistinctly marbled with pale broccoli-brown. Under tail-coverts white, speckled with chestnut-brown of different shades. Bill greyish-black. Legs and toes grey, tinged with brown.

PLATE 49- represents the Male bird of the natural size. Head, chin, and throat, dark hair-brown, glossed behind Male. the ears with auricula-purple. Lower part of the neck, and two streaks running upwards to the hind part of the head, white. Nape and back part of the neck deep brown. Breast, belly, and abdomen, white. Flanks and thighs with fine transverse black lines. Vent and under tail-coverts velvet-black. Back beautifully marked with alternate waving lines of black and greyish- white. Scapulars black. Tertials long and acuminate, velvet-black, margined with yellowish-white, or sometimes with pearl-
grey. Lesser wing-coverts deep smoke-grey. Larger coverts tipped with pale reddish-brown. Speculum blackish -bronzed green, tipped with white. Greater quills hair-brown. Tail having the two middle feathers elongated, acuminate, black ; and the lateral ones hair- brown, margined with white. Bill, from the gape, two and a quarter inches long, black. Legs and toes black ish-grey.”

While working on the duck plates Selby wrote to William Jardine, “The Teals and Pintail I have put together as you perceive no essential difference in the form of the bill, and the tail is on the same plan.”

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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