ROBERT MITFORD (BRITISH, 1781-1870), “A Carrion Crow“
ROBERT MITFORD (BRITISH, 1781-1870)
Original watercolor prepared for Plate 31 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, pen and ink on paper
Signed ‘R. Mitford’ l.l.
Paper size: 11 x 17 5/8 in.
London, ca. 1820
Provenance: Library of H Bradley Martin.
The habits of the Gallinule are decidedly aquatic, as it swims from choice, and is indeed more frequently seen in the watery element than upon land; it also dives with ease, not only to avoid impending danger, but as it would appear for the purpose of obtaining food; as I have several times known it to have been taken by a line baited with an earthworm for catching eels or trout. It is thus in all probability that the Gallinule obtains the larger coleopterous water insects, aquatic worms, and the larvae of dragon-flies, &c. When suddenly surprised in a situation at all exposed, it usually takes wing, skimming along the surface of the water, but only for a short distance, to the first bush or cover that offers, where it conceals itself so effectually, either by submerging its body, and keeping only the bill above water, or in some hole or shelving retreat in the bank, as generally to defeat any attempts at raising it a second time, even with the assistance of a dog. Its flight is heavy, and when for a short space only, with the legs hanging down; though it rises without apparent difficulty, and can occasionally take a long course on wing. It will sometimes perch upon a bush, or low tree, and that without effort, its long and slender toes giving to it a strong power of grasp. On the margins of ponds or rivers, where the grass is short, it is frequently seen walking about in search of worms and slugs, flirting up its tail at intervals, and thus displaying, in a conspicuous manner, its white under coverts; and as its motions are lively, it becomes a desirable ornamental appendage to those parts of pleasure grounds. For the site of its nest it selects a retired spot among the sedges or low brooks by the water-sides, its foundation frequently resting upon the low floating branches, or upon the stump of an old willow-tree. It is formed of an interlaced mass of decayed flags, rushes, of considerable thickness; in which are deposited from eight to ten eggs, larger than those of the Meadow Crake, and of a yellowish-white, or pale yellowish-brown colour, marbled all over with a differently-sized spots of reddish-brown, or umber brown of various shades. These birds, when they leave the nest for the purpose of feeding, cover their eggs; an instinctive habit possessed by several others, not only of this but of other families, and which I conceive to be done rather with a view to concealment from their enemies, than to retain during their absence the warmth generated by incubation, as suggested by Dr RENNIE. After three weeks the young are excluded, covered with a black hairy down, and immediately take to the water, where they are assiduously attended by the parent, who frequently broods over them in the manner of a hen. This downy covering gradually gives place to the usual plumage, and in the course of nearly five weeks they can fly and provide for themselves. In this young state they are exposed to many dangers, and often become the prey of rats and other vermin, as well as of the voracious pike, which, according to MONTAGU, has been known even to swallow the old bird. Their nests and eggs are also liable to accident, being, from their close situation to the water’s edge in brooks and rivers, often carried away by the summer floods.
Slugs, worms, and insects, with various vegetables and seeds constitute their food. I have kept these birds in good health, when in confinement, upon a diet of grain, earth-worms, and raw meat. Their flesh is of pale colour and delicate flavour, and is in some parts held in high estimation.
PLATE 31. represents an adult bird in the breeding season. Base of the bill, and frontal shield red; the tip wine- General yellow. Irides red. Legs and toes fine olive-green.
The naked portion of the tibiae of a fine vermilion-red, and commonly called the garter. Head, throat, neck, and under parts blackish-grey, margined upon the belly and abdomen with greyish-white. Flanks with large longitudinal streaks of white. Upper parts of the body of a very deep oil-green. Ridge of the wings, and under tail-coverts white; the latter being divided by several black feathers. Quills and tail greyish-black.
The female is rather less than the male; and in her the colours of the bill and garter are not so bright; but in other respects similar.
The young have the throat and fore part of the neck Young, white. Front and checks a mixture of brown and white. Sides of the neck yellowish-brown. Breast and sides ash-grey, tinged with brown; the belly paler. Flanks with yellowish-brown longitudinal streaks. Under tail coverts cream-yellow. Upper parts blackish-grey, tinged with dark oil-green. Legs dirty olive-green. Bill olive-green, darker towards the base, and the frontal shield but slightly apparent, being almost hidden by converging feathers.”
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