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ROBERT MITFORD (BRITISH, 1781-1870), “Woodcock”

ROBERT MITFORD (BRITISH, 1781-1870), “Woodcock”

  • $ 90,000.00

Preparatory work for Prideaux John Selby’s Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes, pen and black ink on paper
Signed in monogram ‘R.M.’
Paper size: 10 7/8 x 17 1/8 in.
Provenance: Collection of H. Bradley Martin.

Selby’s description of the Woodcock is as follows: “This well-known bird, so favourite an object of pursuit with the sportsman, and so highly esteemed by the epicure, can only be considered as a regular winter visitant; though instances are not wanting of Woodcocks remaining through the summer, and even breeding in extensive woods in different parts of the kingdom, they are still too few, I think, to warrant its admission as an indigenous species. I have, however, heard it asserted of late, that such instances are increasing, and that there are districts in which these birds may be found at all seasons in the year ; among others the extensive woody tracts in the neighbourhood of Dunkeldand Blair-Athol, planted by the late Duke, have been mentioned ; a situation, indeed, to all appearance particularly favourable to their habits, exhibiting a great variety of surface covered with wood, and at the same time affording such a profusion of springs, open glades, and moist ground, as to insure to them a constant and abundant supply of food. In Northumberland, the Woodcock has been known to breed in the woods about Netherwitton, and I have now in my collection eggs taken from a nest in Pigdon Wood, not far from Morpeth. In this instance the female appeared not to have had a mate, as the eggs were found to be all addled after she had sat upon them with great assiduity for nearly a month, towards the conclusion of which time she had become so weak as to be scarcely able to rise from the ground.

The first autumnal flight of the Woodcock, on its retreat from the northern countries of Europe, where it breeds and passes the summer, generally takes place towards the end of September or beginning of October; but as this consists of birds whose flight is directed to more southern latitudes than our islands, a few stragglers only remain; or the flight, after resting for a day, proceeds on its course to Portugal, and so onwards to the farthest limit of its equatorial movement. The direction taken by such a great and successive column of these birds, under migration from the north to the southern parts of Europe and Northern Africa, being in a great measure intersected by the south-western coasts of England and Ireland, accounts for the abundance of them in Devonshire, Cornwall, and the countries thus situated, and the still greater numbers found in the southern and western districts of Ireland, compared with the other parts of the kingdom. It is thus also that Woodcocks are generally first observed in these positions, and sometimes long before they are seen in the north of England or Scotland. The succeeding flights, which continue at intervals during October and the two following months, becoming each more limited in extent the whole country gradually receives its accession of winter visitants, those that take up their haunt in the northern counties of England and Scotland seldom arriving before the middle of November or the beginning of December ; the earlier flights, when they do alight in the country, merely remaining for a day, and then passing on to the southward. From this latter circumstance, the search for Woodcocks in Northumberland, in the beginning of the season, is very uncertain, and, to insure success, attention must be paid to the state of the weather and the direction of the wind. I have found that they always come over in the greatest bodies in hazy weather with little wind, and that blowing from the north-east; and it is probable that they then find the upper region of the atmosphere (in which they fly) freer from counter currents of air, than in more open weather. After a night of this description I have frequently met with great numbers upon the edges of plantations, in hedges, and even in turnip fields, and enjoyed excellent sport for the day; but on seeking, on the following morning, for a renewal of the like success, I have not found a single bird, the whole flight having proceeded on their course during the intervening night. It is during this time that Woodcocks, like most migratory birds, perform their journeys; and it seems probable that those which halt upon the eastern coast of Scotland, and the northern counties of England, have completed their task from shore to shore, between sunset and sunrise, as they appear but little fatigued on their arrival, provided the weather has been calm. The distance of the coasts of Norway and Sweden, from whence these visitors are supposed to come, offers no objection to this supposition, as a continued flight of eight or ten hours, even at a rate inferior to what I conceive they are capable of accomplishing, would suffice for the transit. Another argument in favour of this supposition, is the high state of condition in which the birds generally arrive on our shores, especially at an advanced period of the season, by no means indicating the wasting effects of very long-continued exertions. From the facts I am about to mention, it appears that they fly at a considerable altitude (as indeed do most birds when performing their migratory movements), to avoid, it is presumed, the currents of air so frequent near the surface of the earth. A respectable person who lived upon the coast, and who, being a keen pursuer of wildfowl, was in the habit of frequenting the sea-shore at an early hour in the morning, assured me that he had more than once noticed the arrival of a flight of Woodcocks coming from the north-east just at day-dawn. His notice was first attracted by a peculiar sound in the air over his head, that, upon attending to, he found proceeded from birds descending in a direction almost perpendicular; and which, upon approaching the shore, separated, and flew towards the interior. Some of them he observed to alight in the hedges immediately adjoining the coast ; these he pursued and shot, and which proved, as he surmised by the view he had of them as they flew past him, to be Woodcocks.

The haunts selected by these birds, for their residence during the day-time, are usually the closest brakes of birch and other brushy underwood, and where the ground, from the deep shade, is nearly free from herbage; and, for this reason, thick fir plantations of ten or twelve years’growth are a favourite resort. In woods that are very extensive they are generally found, and abound most in thickets by the sides of open glades, or where roads intersect, as by these they pass to and from their feeding ground at evening and in the dawn of the morning. Unless disturbed, they remain quietly at roost upon the ground during the whole day, but as soon as the sun is wholly below the horizon, they are in full activity, and taking flight nearly at the same instant, leave the woods and cover for the adjoining meadows, or open land, over which they disperse themselves, and are fully engaged in search of food during the whole night. Advantage has long been taken of this regular mode of going to and returning from the feeding grounds, by the fowler, in those districts where Woodcocks are abundant, by suspending nets across the glades, or by the sides of hedges where they are observed to pass continually; and, though the adoption of the fowling-piece has in general superseded the modes of capture formerly practised, great numbers are still taken in this manner in Devonshire and Cornwall. Another method of entrapping Woodcocks (as well as Snipes) is by the springe, which is set in places where those perforations made by the bill of the Woodcock in search of food, and technically called Borings, are observed to be most frequent. It is formed of an elastic stick, of which one end is thrust into the ground, the other having affixed to it a noose made of horse-hair; the stick being then bent down, this noose is passed through a hole in a peg fastened to the ground, and is kept properly expanded by means of a fine trigger, so set as to be displaced by the slight pressure of the birds foot. To conduct them to this trap, a low fence of twigs, or of stones placed so closely together as to leave no passage through the interstices, is extended to some distance on each side of the springe, and generally in an oblique direction; over which obstacle, however trifling, it seems the birds never attempt to hop or fly, but keep moving along it, till they approach the part occupied by the noose of the springe: upon attempting to pass through this apparently open space, they displace the trigger, and are almost invariably caught by the noose, and retained by the spring of the stick against the opposing peg. Day being the Woodcock’s time for repose, it sits very close, and is not easily flushed ; the sportsman then requiring the aid of the busy spaniel, or the bush, in which it is ensconced, to be actually beaten by an attendant, before it will take wing. It rises, however, with much Flight, quickness, and threads its way through the branches with great rapidity, until the underwood and trees are fairly cleared, when its flight becomes measured, and offers an easy aim to the sportsman. When roused, it seldom flies to any great distance, but alights in the first thicket that attracts its attention, closing its wings, and dropping suddenly down, and in such cases it is not unusual for it to run a little way before it squats. Just before rising, upon being disturbed, or when running, it jerks its tail upwards, partly expanding it, and fully shewing the white that distinguishes the under surface of the tips of the tail feathers. In feeding, the Wood-cock inserts its bill deep into the earth in search of worms, which are its favourite and principal food. This instrument is most admirably calculated for the offices it has to perform when thus immersed in the soil; for, in addition to its great length, it possesses a nervous apparatus distributed over a great portion of its surface, and especially on such parts as are likely to come first into contact with its prey, giving it the sense of touch in the highest perfection; and to enable it to secure the object thus detected by the discriminating sensibility of the bill, it is further provided with peculiar muscles (common, I believe, to all the members of the genus), which, by compression of the upper or basal part of the bill, are brought into action, so as to expand the tips of both mandibles sufficiently wide, to lay hold of and draw forth the hidden treasure. The digestion of this bird is rapid, and the quantity of worms it can devour in the course of a night is astonishing. I have known one, that consumed at a meal (that is, within the night), more large earth-worms than half filled a garden-pot of considerable size. It may, however, by management, be brought to eat other food ; as MONTAGU mentions one that was induced to feed on bread and milk, by worms cleanly washed being put into a mess of that kind; and, by this practice being persisted in, the bird soon acquired a relish for this new sort of aliment, and, with the addition of a few worms, throve well upon it.

The flesh of the Woodcock, when in condition, is highly and deservedly esteemed, being juicy meat, and of delicate flavour; indeed so excellent has it been considered by the epicure, that no portion was suffered to be lost, and we therefore always see it customarily dressed with the entrails undrawn, and serving as a savoury addition to the rest of the flesh; in the same manner also Snipes are universally treated. Towards the latter part of February, when the vernal change of plumage commences, the flesh of these birds loses its fine flavour, and becomes strong, the skin also turns dry and scurfy, and they are rarely fit to be presented at the table; soon after which time they begin to pair ; and, going off in succession, by the middle of April the whole have re-migrated to higher northern latitudes, where they breed and pass the summer months. During the period of their returning flights, should the wind, then blowing from the south and south-west, suddenly veer round to the north-east, we frequently have an accumulation of Woodcocks on the eastern coast ; but (as I have before observed) they are now out of condition, and therefore never pursued by the sportsman with the same eagerness as in the early part of the season. The nest of this bird is generally in thickets, and placed near the root of a bush or tree, and is formed merely by a slight hole, lined with a few dead leaves and stems of grass; and the eggs (which, as far as I can ascertain, are always four in number), are of yellowish- white, blotched with a pale chestnut-brown colour. In Sweden, and other parts of the continent where it breeds in abundance, the eggs are now considered a delicacy for the table, as those of the Green Lapwing have long been in England ; and to this destruction of the breed has been attributed the decrease of Woodcocks so generally complained of by our sportsmen for some years past.

Its geographical distribution embraces a great part of the ancient continent, as there are few countries within the temperate and frigid zones in which it is not known either as a winter or summer visitant. It has not hitherto been met with in America, but is there represented by a nearly allied species, the Scolopax minor of authors. Being a nocturnal feeder, the eyes of the Woodcock are large and prominent, in order to collect the scattered and indistinct rays of twilight; their situation also is peculiar, being placed far back in the head, and nearly on a level with the crown, which gives its head, and those of the Snipes, a square compressed form, not seen to that degree in any other members of the ScolopatidtE. The above-mentioned peculiarity, however, enables these birds to probe the ground to a greater depth without inconvenience, and at the same time considerably extends the sphere of vision.

The female (contrary to the account given in SHAWLS Zoology), generally exceeds the male bird in size; she also has less of the white and greyish- white upon the back and scapulars, and the under parts are of a redder tinge. The outer web of the first quill-feather is also barred for the whole of its length, which, in the male, is often entirely white, or with a few faint bars near to the tip only.

PLATE 23. Fig. 1. Represents the Woodcock of the natural size. General Bill flesh-red, tinged with bluish-grey, increasing in intensity of colour towards the point; in the living bird smooth, but becoming wrinkled or rough near the tip, by the desiccation of the nervous fibres, soon after death. Forehead and crown grey. From the corners of the bill to the eyes is a streak of deep brown. Hind part of the head, and nape of the neck, having four broad brownish-black bars, the intermediate spaces being reddish-white. Chin white. On each side of the front of the neck is a patch of brown, more or less distinct in different individuals. Upper parts of the plumage a mixture of chestnut-brown, pale ochreous yellow and grey, with large spots and zigzag transverse lines and bars of black ; the black most intense upon the back and scapulars. Rump and tail-coverts pale chestnut-brown ; some of the latter with pale reddish-white tips and narrow transverse bars of black. Tail black, more or less varied with chestnut-brown; the tips of the feathers grey above, and pure white below.”
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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