ROBERT MITFORD (BRITISH, 1781-1870), “A Rook”
Original watercolor prepared for Plate 30 of Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, pen and ink on paper
Signed ‘R. Mitford’ l.l. and inscribed ‘Rook’, ‘30’ upper left
Paper size: 10 1/4 x 16 3/4 in.
London, ca. 1820
Provenance: Library of H Bradley Martin.
Selby’s text for the Rook is as follows: “The rook is in general rather larger than the Carrion-Crow, from which it greatly differs in habits. Its bill is also longer, the upper mandible weaker, and not so much arched, and the glossy tint of its plumage more inclined to purple.
In the adult state it is easily distinguished by the naked and scurfy white skin at the base of its bill and on the chin, produced by the abrasion of its bristly feather, which, in the young bird, cover this part and the nostrils. These feathers are generally worn off by constant thrusting of its bill into the soil in search of worms and the larvae of the different insects, that form its principal food. It also eats grain and other seeds. The Rook has erroneously been viewed in the light of an enemy by most husbandmen, and in several districts attempts have been made either to banish it, or to extirpate the breed. But wherever this measure has been carried into effect, the most serious injury to the corn and other crops has invariably followed, from the unchecked devastations of the grub and caterpillar. As experience is the sure test of utility, a change of conduct has in consequence been partially adopted; and some farmers now find the encouragement of the breed of Rooks to be greatly to their interest, in freeing their lands from the grub of the cockchafer (Melolontha vulgaris), an insect very abundant in many of the southern counties. In Northumberland I have witnessed its usefulness in feeding on the larva of the insect commonly known by the name of Harry Longlegs (Tipula oleracea), which is particularly destructive to the roots of grain and young clovers. Rooks are strictly gregarious, not only breeding, but living and seeking their food together, during the whole year, in numerous societies. They breed on the same trees, and generally occupy the same nest through successive years, and none but natives are permitted to become members of each society.
They frequent cultivated districts, and the loftiest trees in the immediate vicinity of old country residences, are generally chosen for their habitations. There are even many instances of colonies being established in the middle of populous cities and towns, where they have been allowed to breed unmolested.
Early in the spring, as the season of pairing, and the period of incubation approach, the rookery exhibits an amusing scene of provident industry, which is described in WHITE’S Natural History of Selborne, with the author’s characteristic and strong touches.
During incubation the female bird is assiduously attended and fed by the male, whose kind offices she receives with fluttering wings, open beak, and the same interrupted note, that must have been generally observed in the young birds.
The eggs of the Rook are four or five in number, of a Eggs. bluish-green colour, blotched with darker stains. After the young have taken wing, the old birds sometimes forsake the nest-trees, but invariably return to them again in October, at which time they are observed occasionally to repair their nests.
The Rook is common throughout England, and the greater part of Scotland. It is a native of most of the temperate European regions, and of some parts of Asia. According to LATHAM, it is migratory in France and Silesia, and he adds, that it is a singular circumstance the Islands of Jersey and Guernsey should be without Rooks, particularly when it is ascertained that they frequently fly across the channel, from this country to France.
PLATE 30. Figure of the natural size.
Bill bluish-black, the base, in the adult bird, denuded of General feathers, and covered with a white scurf. Whole plumage black, glossed with rich tints of blue and violet-purple. Feathers on the back of the neck long, loose, and silky. Legs and claws black.
This bird is subjected to considerable variation of plumage, being sometimes found of a pure white, or of a piebald appearance. I possessed two of a sienna-yellow colour, with the wings and tail inclining to yellowish-grey, with red irides, and with the bill, legs, and toes, flesh- red, taken from the same nest, in which were also two of the usual colour.”
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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