John Gould may have been the “Bird Man,” but Elizabeth Gould was the Bird Artist

John Gould may have been the “Bird Man,” but Elizabeth Gould was the Bird Artist

Elizabeth Gould’s 19th-century illustrations of birds made her husband’s career and established his reputation as an ornithologist—but her work was credited to her husband for decades.

July 14 2023 Jessica McKenzie

It is an acknowledged truth that a single taxidermist must be in want of a wife—preferably one skilled with a pencil and brush.

This, at least, seems to have been the case for John Gould, a preserver of animals and aspiring naturalist who was working at the Zoological Society of London in the late 1820s when he met Elizabeth Coxen, who became his illustrator and lithographer as well as his wife. She was integral to the early success of his monographs on birds and his eventual reputation as the father of Australian ornithology, second only to John James Audubon in establishing the field of bird illustration. In addition to the works she did for her husband’s books, Elizabeth also illustrated Charles Darwin’s The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, although she was not credited.

For the most part, modern scholars now agree that Elizabeth was not just the primary but the sole lithographer for Goulds’ A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains and The Birds of Europe.

“Without her, John Gould would never have become the Bird Man,”—the epitaph he chose for himself—“because he wasn’t an artist,” says Adria Castellucci, a librarian at the Australian Museum.

Based on published correspondence by or to the Goulds, their contemporaries also knew her to be the principal artist, according to Castellucci. And yet by the time John passed away—four decades after Elizabeth’s death from puerperal fever at the age of 37, after giving birth to their eighth child—her contributions to his early body of work weren’t even mentioned in his obituary. One friend, Castelluci says, even wrote in to the paper to rebuke them for leaving her out of the story. As recently as 2014, an article published by the National Endowment for the Humanities magazine described John Gould as the “Bird Artist” and effused about his “beautiful drawings.” Elizabeth was portrayed as a mere helpmate.

This re-attribution of credit began even before Elizabeth’s premature death. While the illustrations in Gould’s first book credited “E Gould,” those in the following book were captioned “J & E Gould.”

“The curious thing about the whole John Gould, Elizabeth Gould affair is that John Gould, in all the notes and everything and letters, gave her plenty of credit, because she was the illustrator,” says William Ashworth, a historian of science and professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City. “Increasingly, he would add his own name to the plates and then in the end he didn’t even have her name on them at all. I don’t think anyone’s quite figured out what John Gould was thinking or why he was doing that, or whether he felt that he had to have his names on plates that he didn’t do, but that’s just odd. Because we now know that Elizabeth did all the artistic work.”

Unfortunately, Castelluci and Ashworth said it was all too common at the time for women to illustrate books for their husbands (or fathers, or brothers) with little or no credit. Drawing and painting were one of the few skills that middle-class women like Coxen would be instructed in, although the particulars of her education aren’t known.

It wasn’t until her marriage to Gould that Elizabeth learned lithography, a print-making process in which illustrations are drawn onto limestone blocks with crayons and then treated with nitric acid and gum arabic. When the stone is wet, oily ink will only adhere to the drawing, which is then transferred to paper. It was faster and easier than other types of printmaking at the time, but still neither fast nor easy. John Gould had the artist Edward Lear (better known as the poet and illustrator of “The Owl and the Pussy-cat”), who had previously used lithography to illustrate a book about parrots, teach Elizabeth on the technique.

Elizabeth was enormously prolific, says Castelluci, sometimes churning out dozens of lithographs a month. Her style continued to evolve over the years, especially once she began working from live (caged) specimens for Birds of Europe, setting the standard for scientific illustrations.

“She contributed to the practice of representing an animal in the context of its natural environment/habitat and was at the cutting edge of zoological print-making during her lifetime,” Melissa Ashley, the author of a historical nonfiction book about Elizabeth Gould called The Birdman’s Wife, wrote in an email.

The marriage and working partnership Elizabeth had with John certainly allowed her to have a remarkable life, especially compared to most women at the time.

“I think John in a way gave Elizabeth an opportunity to be an artist that was not normally available for a woman of her class and time,” Ashley wrote. “He respected her and encouraged her and she became a professional in tandem with his own development as an ornithologist and publisher.”

In 1838, the couple left for Australia to work on a book about the birds of that continent, taking their seven-year-old son with them but leaving the three youngest living children behind. (She bore another child while traveling abroad.)

While they were in Australia, Elizabeth drew from life, both from birds in the wild and in captivity, as well as from taxidermy. Elizabeth would go with John into the field to observe species in their natural habitats. They even went camping together, to the delight of one of her friends, Lady Franklin, who wrote, “I almost envy you to hear of you living in tents.”

Elizabeth did quick work, according to a new acquaintance who wrote in his journal, “I had had the pleasure of seeing the lady at her pencil, and was surprised by the rapidity of her execution.” She was also detail-oriented and practical.

“I find amusement and employment in drawing some of the plants of the colony, which will help to render the work on Birds of Australia more interesting,” Elizabeth wrote in a letter to her mother. “I trust we shall be enabled to make our contemplated work of sufficient interest to ensure it a good sale.” Elizabeth produced 84 plates for this volume before her death, as well as hundreds of sketches and drafts that the artists John hired to complete the job consulted and referenced in their own work.

Try as society might, Castelluci says that Elizabeth Gould’s story cannot be seen through the lens of 20th century feminism, because that framework wasn’t available to Elizabeth at the time.

“She was just as dedicated a wife, and especially a mother, as she was an artist,” Castalluci says. “For a long time, there was this narrative that basically said she’d been sacrificed to Gould’s work, which I think is really reductive and a bit misogynistic. I don’t believe that, but I do believe that she actively made a lot of sacrifices about what she wanted in the domestic sphere, in order to not just support her husband, but to do her work and make this contribution.”

There’s an apocryphal conversation between the Goulds that allegedly took place after they married and Elizabeth began completing drawing commissions for her husband’s colleagues and clients, and before they embarked on their first book project. Into this exchange can be read everything, and nothing, depending on the narrative to which you subscribe.

Elizabeth asked who would be responsible for transferring the illustrations to stones for printing. Her husband responded:

“Why you, of course.”