Gould Collections at KU

The Story of the Gould Collection

Karen S. Cook, September 2013


From 1830 until his death in 1881 John Gould oversaw the production of over a dozen folio-size books about birds of the world, published in almost fifty volumes, more than any other natural-history publisher in Victorian England. In the descriptive text and hand-colored lithographic illustrations he sought to combine scientific information with pictorial images appealing to wealthy clients, a balance of science and art that achieved commercial success. During the mid-twentieth century a series of fortunate coincidences brought a large collection of more than1200 manuscripts from John Gould’s workshop to the University of Kansas Libraries. No other library in the world holds and provides public access to so many of the preparatory ornithological drawings, watercolors, lithographic stones, proof prints, and color pattern plates, as well as a nearly complete set of Gould’s published books. The history of the Gould Collection is an interesting tale.

John Gould was born in 1804 in Dorset, England and developed an interest in natural history during childhood, learning egg blowing and taxidermy. In 1818 his father, a gardener, took a job in the Royal Gardens at Windsor near London, and his son began to learn the same trade. In 1825, after several years in training as a gardener at Ripley Castle, Yorkshire, John returned to London and changed careers, starting in business as a taxidermist. His taxidermy skills next led him to become Curator and Preserver in 1827 to the Museum of the recently formed Zoological Society of London (Lambourne 1987, 19-22).

Marriage to Elizabeth Coxen, a well-bred governess with skills in French, Latin, music, and art, followed in 1829. In addition to her role as wife and mother of a growing family, Elizabeth assisted her husband by drawing and painting bird illustrations for a succession of books. Their first such collaboration was A Century of Birds hitherto unfigured from the Himalaya Mountains, a book whose eighty plates (depicting a hundred birds) were issued in parts between 1830 and 1833. It was an educational experience for both. John learned from the scientific descriptions of birds written for the book by William Aylward Vigors, Secretary of the Zoological Society. Elizabeth learned how to draw birds on stone printing plates with advice from Edward Lear, a young artist already skilled at drawing birds for lithographic reproduction (Jackson 1975, 32-38; Lambourne 1987, 25-27, 36; Sauer 1982, 17).

A trip during 1838-1840 to Australia, where Elizabeth’s brothers had emigrated, enabled Elizabeth to draw and John to observe and collect Australian birds and mammals in their native habitat. Their last joint book was Birds of Australia, but Elizabeth died following childbirth in 1841, before its completion (Lambourne 1987, 45-53). The illustrations were finished by Henry Constantine Richter, a young artist who would remain with Gould for forty years (Jackson 1978, 11-12). Other artists who illustrated Gould’s books during the next decades also included William Matthew Hart, and Joseph Wolf (Jackson 1975, 48-54; 1987, 237-241). Gould continued working on his bird books into the 1870s, although slowed by ill health. He died in 1881, leaving several unfinished books (Jackson 1975, 39-58; Lambourne 1987, 105).

The publication rights to Gould’s works were purchased from his estate in 1881 by Henry Sotheran & Co., a London firm of booksellers and publishers.  Gould’s longtime friend and fellow ornithologist, Richard Bowdler Sharpe, completed the text for the unfinished books. William Matthew Hart was the artist of the illustrations, while ornithologist Osbert Salvin gave advice and supervised the proofs. Sotheran published Birds of New Guinea, 1875-1888, and Monograph of the Trochilidae, 1887 (Jackson 1975, 55).

Even more significant for the story of the Gould Collection was Sotheran’s purchase from the estate of John Gould of the contents of his workshop (paying more than £5,000 for 30 tons of original artwork, lithographic proofs, and unsold text and illustration plates). Following a period of financial difficulties during the 1920s, the Sotheran firm issued a catalog in 1934 offering a sizeable selection of this Gould material for sale (Gray 2011; Sprague 2011, 3-4). The Gould sale had a magnetic attraction for an American collector of ornithological books, Ralph Nicholson Ellis, Jr., who travelled to England in 1936 (Vosper 1964, 7). A brief biographical flashback about Ellis will explain.

Born to a wealthy family in 1908, Ellis was a sickly child, protected and indulged by his parents and the family servants. As a boy in South Carolina he became interested in natural history and began to observe birds and collect their eggs. Following a move to Berkeley, California with his mother in 1923, Ellis was befriended and mentored by several zoologists at the University of California. Field trips to collect mammals and birds in California and Nevada were positive experiences for Ellis, while abortive semesters enrolled at the University of California and Harvard University were less so. During 1931-1932 Ellis’s health broke down during the Harvard Zoological Expedition to Australia. That health crisis was a turning point in his life (Vosper 1964, 2-4).

Giving up the attempt to become a field scientist, Ellis began to collect natural history books, especially those about ornithology, ever more seriously. He built up a solid scholarly library and subscribed to over 200 journals. Following his father’s death in 1933, leaving an estate valued at over a million dollars, Ellis’s book buying escalated and led to conflict with his mother, who has to sell property in order to pay his bills. Ellis slipped away to England during April 1936-December 1937 for an extended book-buying orgy that he reckoned amounted to $63,000. His purchases included a large amount of Gould material that had come to light, starting in 1934, during stock-taking in Sotheran’s basement storage area. Ellis bought several thousand drawings and proof prints, a dozen cancelled lithographic stones, and a nearly complete set of Gould’s bird publications (Vosper 1964, 4-8).

Despite the problems that beset his return to California, namely, commitment to a mental institution by his mother, divorce from his first wife, alcoholism, and debt, he continued to buy books, whether or not he could pay for them. In 1943 at age thirty-five he gained access to more of his father’s estate. After another flurry of book buying and a second marriage, he left California headed for New York City in 1945 with his 65,000-item collection loaded into two railway freight cars. Ellis interrupted his journey at Lawrence, Kansas, where he stopped to visit a scientist friend from California, Professor E. Raymond Hall, who had become Director of the Museum of Natural History. He offered Ellis storage space for his books, an office, and access to laboratories, a chance for a new start that Ellis seized with enthusiasm. However, just six months later Ellis died of pneumonia while on a trip to California. He had left his collection to the University of Kansas, with his mother’s approval but not that of his young widow. The latter challenged the will, but the State Supreme Court decided in favor of the University in April 1950, and the Ralph N. Ellis, Jr. Collection, with the Gould Collection at its heart, became part of the University of Kansas Libraries (Vosper 1964, 8-11).

In 1953 the Department of Special Collections was created and the first curator of Special Collections, Joseph Rubinstein, was hired. The Ellis Collection became its major foundation collection. However, the area occupied by Special Collections in Watson Library was crowded. That issue was resolved in 1968, when the new Kenneth Spencer Research Library opened, thanks to support from the University administration, especially Director of Libraries Robert Vosper, and a generous gift by Helen Foresman Spencer in memory of her late husband (Helyar 1994, 9-17).

Once the University of Kansas had welcomed the Gould Collection and housed it in a new library building, what the Gould Collection needed next was cataloging and research. That began almost immediately. During the mid-1940s Gordon Chenoweth Sauer, a young doctor training to specialize in dermatology after his World War II military service ended, had chanced upon some John Gould bird prints in an antique shop. His initial purchase soon led to an enduring passion for Gould’s ornithological publications. After moving to Missouri in the early 1950s, Sauer experienced “shock and disbelief, but was very pleasantly surprised to learn that the largest collection of Gouldiana in the world was but 125 kilometres away at the University of Kansas.” (Sauer 1982, xiii). Over the next half century Sauer collaborated with Spencer Research Library staff on unpacking, cataloging, researching, exhibiting, and writing about the Gould Collection, as well as making additions to it. In 1982 he reminisced about “the days in the 1950s when Joe Rubinstein and I explored the recently opened safes, file boxes, and piles of books that made up the Ralph Ellis Ornithological Collection” (Sauer 1982, xx). Although Sauer himself had cataloged a few of the Gould drawings early on, he had soon realized that it was a daunting task. He praised the cataloging work on the Gould drawings done by librarian Carol Chittenden. In March 1971 she had received advice about cataloging the drawings from art historian and ornithologist, Allan McEvey, visiting from the National Museum of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia (Sauer 1982, xxi). Special Collections records show that she cataloged 300 drawings during 1971. Sauer also relished his interaction with Dr. Robert Mengel, who began compiling an alphabetical catalog of the Ellis Collection, of which the first two volumes were published (Mengel 1972-). Sauer also expressed gratitude to other Spencer Research Library staff, including Alexandra Mason, who succeeded Joe Rubinstein as Special Collections Librarian, and L.E. James Helyar, Curator in Graphics, who shared Sauer’s enthusiasm for the Gould drawings (Sauer 1982, xx). Meanwhile, in addition to authoring a major dermatology textbook and building a distinguished career in that field, Sauer became a leading Gould researcher. He laid the groundwork for some future researcher to write a biography of John Gould, publishing a chronology of his life and bibliography of publications by and about Gould (Sauer 1982). He also published the correspondence of John Gould through 1857 in five volumes, the last volume of which appeared in 2003, the last year of Sauer’s life. Toward the end of his own career in Special Collections, James Helyar created a digital database of catalog entries for the Gould drawings. Some years earlier catalog records for Gould’s published works had been added to the University of Kansas Libraries on-line catalog. With cataloging of Gould’s books and drawings completed, the time was ripe for their digitization, a project for which National Endowment for the Humanities funding was received in 2011.




Helyar, James, ed. 1994. A Silver Anniversary: The First 25 Years of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library (Lawrence: University of Kansas).

Datta, Ann. 2004. “Obituary Gordon Chenoweth Sauer MD (1921-2003),” Archives of Natural History 31, no. 1:170-174.

Gray, Victor. 2011. Bookmen: London: 250 Years of Sotheran Bookselling. London: Henry Sotheran Ltd.

Jackson, C. E. 1975. Bird Illustrators: Some Artists in Early Lithography. London: H.F. & G. Witherby.

Jackson, Christine E. 1978. “H. C. Richter – John Gould’s unknown bird artist,” Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History 9, no. 1: 10-14.

Jackson, Christine E. 1987. “W. Hart – John Gould’s second unknown bird artist,” Archives of Natural History 14, no. 3: 237-241.

Lambourne, Maureen. 1987. John Gould – Bird Man. Milton Keynes, UK: Osburton Productions.

Mengel, Robert M. 1972-. A Catalogue of the Ellis Collection of Ornithological Books in the University of Kansas Libraries. Lawrence: University of Kansas.

Sauer, Gordon C. 1982. John Gould, The Bird Man: A Chronology and Bibliography. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Sprague, James (in conversation with Beatie Wolfe). 2011. “ Sotheran’s: 250 Years of Bookselling,” Antiquarian Booksellers’ Newsletter 361 (February).

Vosper, Robert. 1964. A Pair of Bibliomanes for Kansas: Ralph Ellis and Thomas Jefferson Fitzpatrick. Lawrence: University of Kansas Libraries.