Elizabeth Gould

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From The Birdman's Wife, by Melissa Ashley

Elizabeth Gould (nee Coxen) was born in 1804, in Ramsgate, Kent, to a military family. While little is known of her early life, at twenty-two, Elizabeth was employed as a governess, residing in James Street, London. Her young charge, Harriet Rothery, was the nine year old daughter of the chief of the office of the King’s proctor, William Rothery (Datta 1997, 65) [i]. From the single letter that survives from the period, we know that Elizabeth taught Harriet French, Latin and music (Chisholm 1964, 10)[ii]. Writes Elizabeth to her mother:

[Harriet] is a perfect child in mind and manners so that I cannot communicate a single thought or feeling in which she could share and then for a little while I feel it miserably-wretched dull. I feel I shall get very melancholy here (Chisholm 1964, 10).[iii]

Elizabeth, it seems, wasn’t convinced of the merits of working as a governess. According to Bruce Crawford, a descendant of Elizabeth Gould’s nephew, William Henry Coxen, Elizabeth Coxen and John Gould met by way of Charles Coxen, Elizabeth’s younger brother (Greenslope 2012) [iv]. Charles Coxen, like John Gould, was a taxidermist and as early as 1829, Gould’s correspondence records a reference to their relationship:

With Coxen is connected the Birdstuffer of the Zoological Society, Mr Gould, who resides at the Society’s house in Bruton Street (Sauer 1998a, 15)[v].

While nothing is known of their courtship, John Gould and Elizabeth Coxen were married on January 5, 1829, at St James Church, Piccadilly (Sauer 1998z, 13)[vi]. They were both 24 years of age.

Although no records survive of Elizabeth’s artistic training, she was obviously a skilled draughtswoman. She was likely taught drawing and watercolour painting as part of the set of accomplishments expected of middle and upper class women in Regency and Victorian Britain (Russell 2011, 10) [vii]. Shortly after their marriage, Elizabeth began to make scientifically accurate representations of the novelty bird specimens John prepared for his customers. Gould’s clientele ranged from the leading ornithologists of the day, for example, Sir William Jardine and Prideaux Selby to historically important collectors like the thirteenth Earl of Derby, whose natural history collection formed the basis of the Liverpool Museum. In a letter from John Gould to Sir William Jardine, dated 1 September 1830, Gould wrote that Elizabeth was preparing three drawings and that the cost would be 1.16.0 (Sauer 1998a, 22) [viii]. Thus, from the early days of their married partnership, Elizabeth earned money for her family.


In 1830, when John Gould made the decision to produce and publish a subscriber-paid volume of hand-painted lithographs of rare Indian birds, Elizabeth Gould served as principal artist. Biographical legend has it that when John shared the inspiration for his publishing adventure with Elizabeth, she was incredulous, asking who would do the work of transferring the drawings onto stone (Bowdler Sharpe 1893, xii) [ix]. John, who was not artistic, responded: "Why you, of course" (Bowdler Sharpe 1893, xii) [x].

Before the age of thirty, Elizabeth had designed and illustrated eighty hand-coloured lithographs, representing one hundred species of Indian birds, the majority of which were not previously known to science. In 1832, the plates were bound together under the Goulds’ first title, A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains. To acknowledge Elizabeth’s achievement designing the lithographed plates, the systematist, N.A. Vigors, who had assisted John Gould with the collection’s taxonomy, named a species of sunbird after her, Mrs Gould’s Sunbird (Aethopyga gouldiae).

The image of the Himalayan Shrike-babbler (Lanius erythropterus) is from the complete volume of pattern plates for A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains, part of the Ralph Ellis Collection. The preparation of the patterns plates, or ‘patterns’, was undertaken by Elizabeth Gould, who selected the pigments and brush sizes the colourists would employ to create hundreds of hand-painted copies. The Himalayan Shrike-babbler template displays Elizabeth’s attention to the smallest details; she worked with a single-haired brush to paint mandible bristles and individual feather barbs. To the left of the leafy foliage in the background, John Gould has written instructions to the colourists: “These leaves not quite as bright or thorny as those at the bottom.” Such notes were common. The lithograph patterns were printed on hard paper, and are soiled and scuffed by paintbrush marks from repeated consultation and referencing.

A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains was enormously successful and Elizabeth continued to collaborate with her husband, starting work on The Birds of Europe in 1832. Gould claimed to have undertaken the publication at the request of his subscribers, who wanted to own luxury prints of local and familiar birds (Sauer 1982, 22-3) [xi]. The Birds of Europe was produced in a similar fashion to A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains, taking a total of five years (1832-1837) to complete, and comprising some 448 plates. Sixty-eight of these plates were designed by Edward Lear, whose imagination revealed hand-coloured lithography’s remarkable possibilities for zoological illustration (Lambourne 1987, 38) [xii]. Elizabeth drew the smaller passerines, while Lear’s plates featured larger species such as owls, raptors and waterfowl. As early as 1830, the eighteen year old self-taught artist had impressed John Gould with his Illustrations of the Family of the Psittacidae, or Parrots (1830-1832).

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Edward Lear’s style of drawing from life was cannily adopted by the Goulds (Levi 1995, 39) [xiii]. Writes John Gould in the prospectus to The Birds of Europe:

Assisted by experienced collectors at all the most favourable localities, it is intended that the artists employed on this Work shall have, as far as possible, a constant supply of living or very recently killed birds, thus ensuring a degree of truth both of character and colouring, which museum specimens, however well preserved, can never supply (Gould 1831, 22-3)[xiv].

Where Elizabeth had to copy taxidermied specimens for A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains, it was possible to study Britain’s living (if caged) birds. Given the best taxidermy practices, birds have ‘soft parts’ in their anatomy--eyes, eye-rings, neck wattles, the skin of their feet and lower legs--the colours of which fade quickly after death. It’s likely that the falcon in the uncoloured lithograph of the Red-footed Falcon, the species Elizabeth holds with a falconer’s ribbon in her portrait, was sketched from life.

Elizabeth Gould’s illustrations underwent remarkable development in this collection, as she learned tips about composition and design from Edward Lear. Gould’s bibliographer, Gordon Sauer, argued that the format for Gould’s folios was established as early as A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains . Elaborate, naturalistic backgrounds were introduced in The Birds of Europe, a hallmark of the Gouldian hand-coloured lithograph.  Before training in the print-making technique of lithography, Elizabeth and Edward made drawings for British ornithologists Selby and Jardine, which were transferred by specialist engravers onto metal plates for reproduction. The engraver’s pointed metal burin produces hard lines, whereas lithographic crayon, drawn on limestone blocks prepared by graining, a process which gives a velvety texture or “tooth” to the stone surface, can create the softest tonal shading. It wasn’t until The Birds of Europe that the Goulds’ designs moved from the rather stiff, eighteenth-century style poses favoured by eighteenth century zoological engravers, to exploiting lithography’s revolutionary potential to suggest the downy, fluffy textures like feathers.

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Sometime in 1837, the Goulds’ conceived of their most ambitious publishing project, The Birds of Australia. To produce the highest quality and most up to date specimens, they would need to travel to Australia to personally oversee the collecting process. The Goulds’ Australian expedition was partly inspired by Elizabeth’s brothers, Charles and Stephen Coxen, who operated farms in New South Wales. During the mid-1830s Charles and Stephen provided John and Elizabeth with hundreds of Australian bird specimens, which were illustrated and described in the two volume publication, Synopsis of the Birds of Australia (1837-38).

The Goulds planned to bring their eldest son, John Henry, aged seven, with them to Australia but leave their three youngest children, Charles, Eliza and Louisa, back in England, in the care of Elizabeth’s mother. For Elizabeth, parting with her three youngest--Louisa was only six months--was a major sacrifice. She almost didn’t make embarkation:

It was Mr Gould’s intention to have written to you again before leaving England but unhappily he was prevented from so doing by the sudden and severe indisposition of Mrs Gould which including the utmost fears for her safety, rendered it very doubtful up to the last moment whether they would be able to go or not and incapacitated him from attending to any but the most urgent matters of business (Sauer 1998a, page?) [xv].

In her letters home and diary Elizabeth presents as a good Christian woman, a pious Victorian mother concerned with the welfare of her family and friends in England. She laments the small irritations of colonial life, the poor quality goods and the difficulties householders experienced with their convict ‘help’. Elizabeth frequently expressed sadness and frustration at being separated from her children, although she had few idle moments in which to fret, kept busy preparing hundreds of sketches, drawings and paintings of the colony’s flora and fauna. She made notes on acacia, casuarina and eucalypt species as well as native grasses, collecting specimens to press in paper during her walks in Hobart and the Hunter Valley.

Elizabeth expressed concern about the large number of specimens collected by John Gould to produce The Birds of Australia, noting that ‘he has already shown himself a great enemy to the feathered tribe,’ but stayed silent about her own position (Chisholm 1944, 33) [xvi].Only occasionally did she allow a kind of tremulous excitement--her responses to Hobart’s landmarks, the climate and plant life--to creep in. As for Elizabeth’s personal investment in her painting and drawing, apart from depicting herself as diligent and hard-working, she divulged little of her artistic concerns. Her struggles and sufferings, her satisfaction at a technical or aesthetic breakthrough, were not recorded in her correspondence.

Elizabeth passed her time in Australia studying commonly encountered bird species which she sketched from life. She drew species captured in remote areas and kept in cages, as well as prepared specimens. One of the treasures of The Ralph Ellis Collection is a two volume folio of original designs for The Birds of Australia, many of which were made by Elizabeth during her stay in Australia. Original designs attributed to Elizabeth Gould include the Eastern Whipbird, known then as the Coachwhip Bird, the Chirruping Wedgebill, several species of Treecreeper, and compositions for the endemic Fairy Wren genera.

Ten lithographs of Fairy Wrens are collected in The Birds of Australia, Elizabeth Gould’s name acknowledged in the design of nine hand-coloured plates. One of her most well-recognised original compositions is the hand-coloured lithograph of the Superb Fairy Wren, a popular species, called the Blue Warbler in Victorian times. The preparatory drawing of the Superb Fairy Wren is signed ‘Mrs Gould’ and features the soft, deft pencil strokes of her signature technique. The original pencil design for the lithographed plate shows three birds: a male displaying full colour plumage and a female attending a juvenile in its nest. Elizabeth’s interest in the species building nests and tending young shows in her keenly observed design. She paid attention to small features, such as the depiction of eye rings and wing coverts. When colouring a template lithograph, Elizabeth took care to select a watercolour pallet appropriate to Australian colours. She deployed an array of tools and brushes to render minute morphological detail, for example, scalloped-edged breast feathers and her subject’s scaled legs and feet. Another effect of Elizabeth’s meticulous technique was the light-reflecting finish she applied to suggest the eye’s rounded orb, made from whipped egg-white.

The Goulds spent just over two years in Australia, (including travelling time) returning to London in 1840. Back home, Elizabeth began the intensive work of transferring her designs and sketches onto lithographic stones. Throughout her eleven year career working as principal artist for John Gould, she continued to develop her style and techniques. In The Birds of Australia, Elizabeth’s illustrative talents reached their zenith, shown in such magnificent plates as the Satin Bowerbird, the Mallee Fowl, the Brush Turkey, as well as her wrens, rosellas and grass parrots, or, as the latter were named in the nineteenth century, splendid, beautiful and elegant grass parakeets.

An excerpt from a letter written by Edward Lear expresses the risks women faced in delivering children:

Mrs Gould -- for no reason at all apparent -- either to herself or her medical advisers -- was taken with a premature labour (her 4th child in 3 years) (at 4 months,) -- in so dangerous a manner as to give no hope of her life; -- she continued actually -- being confined, till the day before yesterday -- but she is of course though alive -- still in imminent danger…(Sauer 1998a, 310-11) [xvii]

Tragically, Elizabeth Gould died on 15 August, 1841, at Egham, from puerperal fever, following the birth of her third daughter, Sarah, "Sai" (Sauer 1998b, 327) [xviii]. The Goulds were three years into the enormous work of design, classification and description needed to produce The Birds of Australia. They had released just three parts of the new publication. Crates, chests and boxes of the thousands of nests, eggs and study skins they had collected, Elizabeth’s preliminary studies and drawings, and John Gould’s field notes and behavioural and habitat observations, were all yet to be organised. At the time of her death Elizabeth had composed, lithographed and painted designs for 84 of the collection’s plates.

John Gould was devastated by his wife’s unexpected and untimely death. He writes in the Preface to The Birds of Australia:

At the conclusion of my “Birds of Europe,” I had the pleasing duty of stating that nearly the whole of the plates had been lithographed by my amiable wife. Would that I had the happiness of recording a similar statement with regard to the previous work; but such, alas! It is not the case, it having pleased he All-wise Disposer of Events to remove her from the sublunary world within one short year after our return from Australia, during her sojourn in which country an immense mass of drawings, both ornithological and botanical, were made by her inimitable hand and pencil…(Gould 1840-1848, 25) [xix].

Not only was Gould emotionally impacted by the loss of Elizabeth, he was in strife, with regard to the immense amount of work he had slated for her to complete for The Birds of Australia. Although he had found a new artist in eighteen year old Henry Constantine Richter, their working relationship had yet to evolve. That first year of working with Richter must have been a sharp contrast to the efficient creative partnership John Gould had developed with his wife during their eleven year collaboration. Gould wrote to his friend and colleague William Jardine on October 1, 1841:

The loss of my very efficient helpmate will necessarily involve me in considerable trouble with respect to the drawings and although I am happy to say I have artists in training who are fully competent for every thing that can be wished they require from me more perfect sketches[,] constant supervision while each drawing is in progress(Sauer 1998b, 346) [xx].

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The Ralph Ellis Collection contains drawings and paintings that document the complex processes of preparing hand-coloured lithographic plates in the Gouldian atelier. As indicated by John Gould, Elizabeth left behind an unknown number of drawings, sketches and paintings of birds and plants from their Australian expedition. John Gould used these studies as the basis for designs for some of the remaining 597 hand-coloured lithographs featured in the seven volume The Birds of Australia (1840-1848). However, due to practices in the workshop in which a number of artists, including John Gould, worked on a design, altering and adding to its original features but without leaving a signature, it is often difficult to attribute authorship.

A fascinating example is a series of watercolour and pencil studies that were used as original designs for the hand-coloured lithographs of several oceanic species in Volume 7 of The Birds of Australia. One of the original catalogues for the sale of John Gould’s estate by the auction house Sotheran, Piccadilly Notes #9, lists a handful of watercolours of pelagic species. The paintings are attributed to ‘Mrs Gould’ by a faint pencilled note in John Gould’s hand. Species include the Cape Petrel, Silver-grey Petrel, Spectacled Petrel, and Dove-like Prion. The Ralph Ellis Collection’s holding of the Silver-grey Petrel original design (Priocella Antarctica) includes the marginalia: ‘South Pacific Ocean, May, 1840, J & E Gould’. Writes John Gould:

One of the finest examples I possess was captured with a hook and line, and thus afforded Mrs. Gould an opportunity of making a beautiful drawing from life. This drawing, with slight modifications, is the basis of Richter’s lithograph appearing in the Birds of Australia (Hindwood 1938, 137-8)[xxi].    

However, of the 84 hand-coloured lithographs Elizabeth Gould is acknowledged as delineating and lithographing for The Birds of Australia, none represent oceanic species. The design and lithography of the finished hand-coloured plates of pelagic species are instead formally attributed to John Gould and his new artist, H.C. Richter.

The original design of the Cape Petrel (Daption capensis) hand-coloured lithograph was made using the combined media of pencil and watercolour. The design, drawn on thick paper, is soiled, suggesting that it was used repeatedly as a reference. The composition of the subjects’ heads, bills and feathers is identical through all stages of the design process. In Elizabeth’s watercolour study, she has drawn individual feather groupings, each feather on the wing of the foregrounded specimen carefully outlined. The position of the two birds, including the blood on their bills and feathers, must have been inspired by her ship-bound observation of a living pair feasting on a meal of fish.

The second image, of H. C. Richter’s pencil drawing, prepared for copy onto tracing paper and then transfer onto the lithographic stone, was directly lifted from Elizabeth’s original design. Richter’s pencil outlines are heavier than Elizabeth’s originals. In the third sketch, held in the National Library of Australia and attributed to H.C. Richter, but likely the work of John Gould, attention has been paid to the morphological detail, coloured chalk and light washes capturing diagnostic markings on the species’ plumage. With the aid of a taxidermied study specimen, this would have been carefully painted by Richter onto a lithograph to create the template or ‘pattern’ for Gould’s army of colourists to copy.

Elizabeth Gould is acknowledged as the sole author of the hand-coloured lithographs in the Goulds’ first collection, A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains. From her next publication, The Birds of Europe, all the way through to the final collection she produced with her husband, The Birds of Australia, Elizabeth was compelled to share authorship credit for the design and lithography of the plates she designed with John Gould. In his correspondence and in print, John Gould made repeated claims to have formulated the original designs for the plates that bear his name. However, in the case of Elizabeth Gould, documentary evidence from sketches held in the Ralph Ellis Collection seems to favour the case that she created many original designs which were then approved or slightly altered by John Gould. It is difficult to fathom the processes that in correspondence and in print, had John Gould proclaiming enthusiastically over his wife’s sketches and studies of pelagic species, yet in the formal record of author attribution made on the finalised plate, saw substitute his own name for hers.


If a few of Elizabeth Gould’s first efforts at drawing, like any beginning artist in any field, were a little stiff and flat, eleven years later, in 1841, when the first plates for The Birds of Australia were released, she had made immense progress as a zoological artist. That she was as committed as her more talked-about husband to their artistic and scientific collaboration is evident in the depictions she created of some of the world’s most compelling birdlife. She made significant natural history artworks, regarded by critics as John Gould’s most mature and sophisticated works. Examples are the hand-coloured lithographs of the Norfolk Island Kaka (Nestor productus) and New Zealand’s native Huia (Heteralocha acutirostris). These prints have taken on poignant cultural status, their exquisite artistry entering the realm of the iconic upon the extinction of each species.

Elizabeth Gould’s legacy as a nineteenth century zoological illustrator is impressive. During an eleven year career, she designed, lithographed and painted more than 650 plates. She made 80 plates for Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains (1830-32), 380 plates for The Birds of Europe (1832-36), most of the 36 plates for Monograph of the Trogons (1834-36), 24 plates for Monograph of the Ramphastidae (1834), 50 plates for Voyage of HMS Beagle (1838), 20 plates for Icones Avium (1838),120 plates for Synopsis of the Birds of Australia (1837-38), 18 plates for the Birds of Australia and the Adjacent Islands (‘cancelled plates’) (1838), and 84 plates for The Birds of Australia (1840-1848), as well as an unspecified number of original designs and unacknowledged fine drawings for the Birds of Australia.

For his achievements in Australia, John Gould is regarded as the ‘father’ of the continent’s ornithology. However, the substantial contributions made by Elizabeth Gould are less well remembered and documented. Without Elizabeth’s artistic skills and involvement in her husband’s labour-intensive projects, the expensive and perilous voyage and overland journey to gather material for The Birds of Australia would not have been possible. From the very beginning, Elizabeth formed an essential component in the Gouldian enterprise. In remembrance of her efforts, at her death, John Gould named one of the most beautiful Australian species of finch after her, the Gouldian Finch (Poephila gouldiae):

It was with feelings of the purest affection that I ventured, in the folio edition [Birds of Australia], to dedicate this lovely bird to the memory of my late wife, who for many years laboriously assisted me with her pencil, accompanied me to Australia, and cheerfully interested herself in all my pursuits (Hindwood 1938, 134) [xxii].

How ironic that the name commonly associated with this pretty bird is that of John Gould, ornithologist and fine print producer, rather than its intended honouree, the talented but obscured zoological artist, Elizabeth Gould.


Bowdler Sharpe, R. 1893. An analytical index to the works of the late John Gould. London: Sotheran.[ix], [x]

Chisholm, A.H. 1944. The Story of Elizabeth Gould. Melbourne: Hawthorne Press.[xvi] 

Chisholm, Alec. 1964. "Elizabeth Gould: Some 'New' Letters." Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 49(5): 10.[ii],[iii]

Datta, Ann. 1997. John Gould in Australia: Letters and Drawings: With a catalogue of manuscripts, correspondence, and drawings relating to the birds and mammals of Australia held in the Natural History Museum, London. Carlton: Miegunyah P.[i]

Gould, John. 1831. "Prospectus." In The Birds of Europe.[xiv]

Gould, John. 1840-1848. "Preface." In Vol. 1 of The Birds of Australia. London.[xix]

Greenslope. June 2012. Private conversation.[iv]

Hindwood, Keith. 1938. Mrs John Gould. Emu 38(2): 137-8.[xxi], [xxii]

Lambourne, Maureen. 1987. John Gould the Bird Man. Milton Keynes: Osberton.[xii]

Levi, Peter. 1995. Edward Lear: A Biography. New York: Macmillan.[xiii]

Russell, Roslyn. 2011. The Business of Nature: John Gould and Australia. Canberra: National Library of Australia.[vii]

Sauer, Gordon. 1982. "Chronology of John Gould." In John Gould the Bird Man: A Chronology and Bibliography. Michigan: H. Sotheran.[xi]

Sauer, Gordon. 1998a. John Gould the Bird Man: Correspondence: With a Chronology of his Life and Works, Volume 1, Through 1838. Mansfield Centre and London: Maurizio Martino and the Natural History Museum.[v], [vi], [viii], [xv], [xvii]

Sauer, Gordon. 1998b. John Gould the Bird Man: Correspondence: With a Chronology of his Life and Works, Volume 2, Through 1839-40. Mansfield Centre and London: Maurizio Martino and the Natural History Museum.[xviii], [xx]