Joseph Wolf

Joseph Wolf (1820-1899)

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Joseph Wolf was the most prominent ornithological artist to contribute illustrations to John Gould’s bird books. While growing up on a farm in Germany, Wolf roamed the countryside and developed a strong interest in observing and sketching the wildlife. In 1836 his father reluctantly permitted him to become an apprentice at a lithographic firm in nearby Coblenz (Jackson 1975, 63). After spending three years there improving his drawing skills and learning how to copy drawings onto the limestone blocks used for lithographic printing, Wolf returned to the family farm, but only for a year. Scientific contacts led him first to Darmstadt and then to Leiden in the Netherlands, where he progressed from illustrating ornithological books to become a painter of birds and animals. He improved his artistic skills still more by attending art school.

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He developed the idea of depicting birds in motion, such as the dramatic scene of a Capercaillie escaping a fox that he drew for the publisher, Kern, in 1846 (Jackson 1975, 64). When revolution disrupted life on the European continent in 1848, Wolf took up the invitation of David William Mitchell, secretary of the Zoological Society of London, and assisted Mitchell in illustrating George Robert Gray’s book, Genera of Birds (1844-1849). (Fig. 1)

In 1849 Wolf also began to provide John Gould with illustrations for The Birds of Great Britain (1862-1873), his approach being especially suitable for birds of prey (Jackson 1975, 67). For example, he shows the Hooded Crow stealing an egg from a nest (Figs. 2 and 3). Rather than commit to working full-time for Gould, Wolf retained his independence as a free-lance artist. Wolf’s biographer, Samuel Palmer, recounted that Gould enticed Wolf to visit and make charcoal drawings of birds for him by setting out Wolf’s favorite cigars and drawing materials. Whether that story is true or not, it is also recorded that Wolf objected to the overly bright tints chosen by Gould for coloring the lithographic prints (Jackson 1975, 67).

The drawings made by Wolf for The Birds of Asia (1850-1883) were his last for Gould Gould’s text about Bulwer’s Pheasant thanks the British Museum for loaning him the unique type specimen, “which has enabled me to prepare the accompanying Plate from the talented pencil of Mr. Wolf’ (Figs. 4 and 5). Wolf’s drawings were rendered on stone by Henry Constantine Richter, another Gould artist who had earlier worked on illustrations for Gray’s Genera of Birds. It must have been an oversight that Wolf’ who had drawn the Painted Spurfowl for Gould, was not credited on the published plate (Figs. 6 and 7).

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

Thorne Fisher, Clemency. “Wolf, Joseph (1820-1899)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.


Fig. 1. Colius macrourus. Joseph Wolf. Signed: “Wolf” Hand-colored lithographic print. George Robert Gray. Genera of Birds. London, 1844-1849. Plate 95 [corrected by hand to 96]. Call number: MS G45, Unbound copy, vol. [i.e. portfolio] 4.

Fig. 2. Hooded Crow / Corvus cornix. Joseph Wolf. Chalk, charcoal, pastel. 1870. Call number: Gould Drawing 512

Fig. 3. Hooded Crow / Corvus cornix. Joseph Wolf. Credited: “J. Wolf & H.C. Richter, del. et lith.” Hand-colored lithographic print. Birds of Great Britain, 1873. Vol. 3, plate 59. Call number: Ellis Aves H131

Fig. 4. Bulwer’s Pheasant / Lobiophasus bulweri. Joseph Wolf. Chalk, charcoal, pastel. March 1875. Call number: Gould Drawing 976

Fig. 5. Bulwer’s Pheasant / Lobiophasus bulweri. Credited: “J. Wolf and Hart del. et lith.” Hand-colored lithographic print. Birds of Asia, 1850-1883. Vol. 7, plate 13. Call number: Ellis Aves H120

Fig. 6. Painted Spurfowl / Gallioperdix lunulosa. Joseph Wolf. Signed: “Wolf.” Pencil, watercolor. Call number: Gould Drawing 224

Fig. 7. Painted Spurfowl / Gallioperdix lunulosa. Credited: “J. Gould and H.C. Richter, del. et lith.” Hand-colored lithographic print.  Birds of Asia, 1850-1883. Vol. 6., plate 69. Call number: Ellis Aves H120