ROBERT MITFORD (BRITISH, 1781-1870), “Golden Eye Duck, Female”
ROBERT MITFORD (BRITISH, 1781-1870)
“Golden Eye Duck, Female”
Preparatory work for Prideaux John Selby’s Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes, pen and black ink on paper
Initialed ‘R.M.’ lower left
Paper size: 13 3/8 x 14 7/8 in.
Provenance: Collection of H. Bradley Martin.
Selby’s description of the male and female Golden Eye is as follows (our watercolor depicts only the female): “When at maturity, and in perfect plumage, the male Golden-Eye is a handsome bird, and conspicuous from the piebald disposition of his colours. In this state, however, he is in this country rather of rare occurrence; the great body of those that visit our coasts being either females or young males in different stages of advancement, both of which are generally known and distinguished by the name of Mor’dlons. The Golden-Eye is a winter visitant, but its numbers are regulated by the severity or mildness of the season, being always most abundant under the former state of weather. This remark may be applied to all the arctic and their migration southward being gradually extended in consequence of their being frozen out of food in the districts they habitually frequent. This species is usually seen in small flocks or societies upon our lakes and larger rivers, and occasionally upon the coast, near to the mouths of streams. It flies with great strength and rapidity, giving intimation of its approach by the whistling noise of its wings, as it passes through the air. It is remarkably active on the water, swimming and diving with equal facility ; by the latter mode, indeed, it obtains a great proportion of its food, aquatic insects, worms, molluscous animals, fly or fish.
From the quickness with which it plunges, and the distance to which it dives, it is very difficult to kill when afloat, and the introduction of the detonating lock has alone given the water-fowl shooter any chance against it, as it constantly dived at the flash of the pan, and was fairly beneath the surface, before the shot could reach the place of aim. On this account the present and other species of Clangula have obtained among the natives in America the name of Conjuring or Spirit Ducks. Upon the land it proceeds in a shuffling ungainly manner, from the backward position of the legs, and the great size of its feet. It is a native of the Arctic Regions, and is widely spread over those of the new, as well as of the old continent. In summer it retires to high northern latitudes, and breeds upon the banks of the rivers of the interior. Its nest is made in the rushes or other coarse herbage, or sometimes (where suitable in point of locality) in the hollow of a tree, in the manner of the Wood Duck (Dendronessa sponsa.) The eggs are stated to be from twelve to fourteen, and of a pure white. The flesh of the Golden-Eye, although inferior in flavour to that of many other Ducks, is tender and palatable, especially when deprived of its thick and oily skin; and in the market is indiscriminately sold for Wigeon. The trachea of the male bird is of singular conformation, and differs from that of all the preceding species. In addition to the labyrinthic part (which is very large, consisting of an orca and tympanum, placed transversely to the trachea, but of which it is impossible to convey an accurate idea by words), an extra- ordinary enlargement takes place about the middle of the tube itself. This ventricose part, observes MONTAGU, consists of the same cartilaginous rings as the rest of the windpipe, and is, in fact, only a great enlargement of the same structure, being at least four times the diameter of any other part, and upwards of three inches in length, when fully extended. It is so formed, by the inequality of its cartilaginous annulations, and the intermediate membranes, as to be not only capable of contracting to little more than an inch in length, but also of compression, its under part being, when in the contracted state, considerably flattened.
PLATE 62. Represents the adult Male (the Golden-Eye) and the Female (being the Morillon of some authors.) Spot behind the base of the upper mandible pure white. General Forehead and chin brownish-black. The rest of the head, and the upper part of the neck, glossy duck- Male, green, in some lights shewing a rich purple reflection. Lower part of the neck, breast, intermediate wing-coverts, the seven posterior secondaries, belly, and abdo men, pure white (but in some the breast is tinged with sienna-yellow.) The long flank feathers having the outer part of their inner webs velvet-black. The vent, and behind the thighs, broccoli-brown. Exterior scapulars white, and having their outer webs margined with black. The rest of the scapulars, the long tertials, the mantle, and back, deep glossy black. Tail rather long, formed of sixteen feathers, broccoli-brown. Bill black, one inch and three-eighths long, from the angle of the forehead to the tip, with the nostrils placed nearer to the tip than the base. Legs and toes orange. Irides golden or gamboge yellow.
Female. Head, and upper part of the neck, umber-brown. Lower part of the neck or collar greyish- white. Upper part of the breast deep ash-grey, the feathers being margined with greyish-white. Dorsal plumage pitch- (or brownish-) black, the feathers of the mantle and outer scapu- lars being deeply margined with ash-grey. The intermediate wing-coverts brownish-black, blotched with greyish-white. Secondaries as in the male bird. Flanks, and behind the thighs, clove-brown, margined paler. The rest of the lower parts white. Bill having the tip saffron-yellow. Legs dirty orange, with the webs darker.
Young. The young males strongly resemble the females for the first year, but are larger, and may always be ascertained by the trachea. After the second moult the spot behind the bill appears, composed of black and white feathers, and the head and neck acquire the glossy green colour. The back also becomes darker, and there are indications of the exterior black and white scapulars, After the third moult the bird is matured.”
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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