Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “A Raven”
Original watercolor prepared for Plate 67 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, pen and ink on paper
Signed ‘P.J. Selby’ l.l., inscribed ‘Raven’ l.r., inscribed ‘67’ upper right
Paper size: 16 9/16 x 19 3/16 in.
London, ca. 1820
Provenance: Library of H Bradley Martin.
Selby’s text for the Raven is as follows: “The Raven is the largest and strongest bird of this genus, and is found in every quarter of the globe, and under all climates, braving the snows of Greenland with as much ease as it bears the sultry glances of the Torrid Zone. Its favourite places of habitation are in extensive woods, or in a rocky and mountainous country.
It is sometimes seen in the neighbourhood of large towns, Food, drawn thither by the allurement of carrion, and other offal. But its appetite is not confined merely within these useful limits, for it often commits great destruction amongst lambs and sickly sheep, which it leaves to a miserable and lingering death, after having picked out the eyes. Young ducks, chickens, and goslings, also frequently fall a sacrifice to its voracity. For the above reasons, perpetual war is made upon the breed by the shepherds and husbandmen, and it is perhaps in some countries only saved from extermination by the secluded or inaccessible nature of the places in which it builds its nest. The Raven is said to possess the sense of smell in an exquisite degree of perfection, and to scent its food at a surprising distance. Even at Hudson’s Bay, where the severity of the frost very rapidly destroys the effluvia of dead matter, these birds assemble in troops, from all quarters, very soon after the slaughter of an animal, although at the time it takes place not one of them is to be seen on the wing. In a state of freedom, the Raven is very wary, and can rarely be taken by surprise. When young it is easily domesticated, and may be taught a variety of tricks, as well as to articulate a few words. It is, however, always bold and mischievous, and displays its natural cunning in constantly pilfering. Any bright objects, as silver, glass, &c. are particularly alluring; and these it secretes in some hole or crevice, thus establishing a regular depository for its thefts. Some curious anecdotes relative to this subject may be found in the works of authors on natural history
It builds upon the loftiest trees, or on steep and inaccessible rocks. The nest is composed of sticks, lined with wool, hair, &c. The eggs are of an oil-green colour, blotched with darker stains; are generally five or six in number, and scarcely exceed in size those of the Carrion Crow. It breeds very early in the year, commencing nidification about the middle of February. During incubation, the female is regularly attended; and fed by the male bird, who also occasionally occupies her place. At this season they are very bold, and will not permit any Hawk or other bird to approach their haunt with impunity. They pair for life, and return every year to the same spot to breed. When the young become fully fledged, and are able to provide for themselves, the parent birds drive them away from the neighbourhood.
In fine weather, Ravens fly at a considerable height, and perform various rapid manoeuvres; and, whilst thus engaged, they utter a peculiar and quickly repeated note, unlike their usual hoarse and disagreeable croak. The Raven is a very long lived bird ; but the period of its years has never been accurately ascertained, and is probably a little exaggerated in fable.
PLATE 67 A male, in the proportion of four-fifths of the natural size.
General Bill very strong, nearly three inches in length, black. Nostrils covered with bristly feathers, reaching to half the length of the bill. Irides with two circles, the outer one brown, the inner grey. The whole of the plumage black, the upper part glossed with blue. Throat-feathers narrow, raised and acuminated; those of the hinder part of the neck being long, loose, and silky. Tail more than half the length of the body, considerably rounded at the end, and the feathers bent slightly upwards. Legs and toes plated, black. Claws black, strong, and much curved.”
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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