As we quickly near the end of Women’s History Month, let’s take a look at the contributions of one woman, Elizabeth Gould (1804-1841), to the field of ornithology in her work as a scientific illustrator.
Elizabeth Coxen was born in 1804 to a middle-class English family. Part of her education, like that of many middle-class English women of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, included drawing and illustration. It is also likely that she was taught natural history, as this was considered an appropriate pursuit for women of the time period. As a young woman, she moved to London and worked as a governess. There, she met John Gould. Gould had been trained as a gardener by his father, but by this time, he had set up a taxidermy shop in London and also become the first curator and preserver at the museum of the Zoological Society of London. The two likely met through Elizabeth’s brother, who worked as a taxidermist in Gould’s workshop.
John and Elizabeth married in 1829, when they were both 24. She immediately began to assist John in his taxidermy shop by producing scientifically accurate drawings of specimens for his clients. Under the guidance of Edward Lear, she learned the art of lithography and began transferring her sketches to lithographic stone to make prints. Her lithographic designs were purchased by subscribers, and in this way, she contributed directly to the family’s income.
John Gould published his first work, A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains (1830-1832), from a collection of specimens from India that he had acquired through his work in taxidermy. This is the only publication where the Elizabeth Gould’s contributions are directly acknowledged on the plates. They are signed: “Drawn from nature and on stone by E. Gould.” In later works published by John Gould, although there is evidence that Elizabeth was the principal artist, the plates either tend to be attributed jointly to “J & E Gould,” or the plates contain no attribution to Elizabeth at all.
The Zoology of the HMS Beagle
As an example, let’s examine The Zoology of the H.M.S. Beagle (1839-43), edited by Charles Darwin. When Darwin returned from his trip to the Galapagos islands aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, he presented the mammal and bird specimens he had collected to the Zoological Society of London. John Gould agreed to take the bird specimens to identify new species and to write descriptions of them. These descriptions were published in volume 3 of Darwin’s publication. In addition to John’s descriptions, Elizabeth Gould created all 50 of the lithographic plates in that volume.
In the “Advertisement” at the beginning of volume 3, Darwin first describes John’s work on the written descriptions. Regarding the the illustrations, although acknowledging Elizabeth’s execution of the lithography, he seems to downplay her contributions as secondary to those of her husband. He writes, beginning at the bottom of the page, “The accompanying illustrations, which are fifty in number, were taken from sketches made by Mr. Gould himself, and executed on stone by Mrs. Gould, with that admirable success, which has attended all her works.”
This type of qualified attribution seems characteristic of what author Melissa Ashley describes as contemporary depictions of Elizabeth Gould that emphasized her role as assistant and wife, and subjugated her scientific contributions to those of her husband. Ashley argues that,
The skills that Elizabeth possessed and developed during her eleven-year artistic career were not passed on to her by her husband. Rather, John and Elizabeth had complementary skills and abilities. John was an ornithologist, taxonomist, writer and book-publisher but not an artist: Elizabeth was a fine artist skilled in drawing, watercolour painting and lithography.
Below is pictured the first page of the written description of the species Craxirex Galapagoensis and the accompanying illustration. The description is attributed to [John] Gould, but the illustration, as you can see, has no signature.
It is no wonder, then, that Elizabeth’s significance has been obscured until more recent work by historians of science, largely since the 1990s, to uncover the contributions of women, and particularly women illustrators, to the development of scientific fields.
For more on Elizabeth Gould and the contributions of other women to the field of scientific illustration, see the Linda Hall Library’s online exhibit “Women’s Work: Portraits of 12 Scientific Illustrators from the 17th to the 21st Century.”
Ashley, Melissa. “Elizabeth Gould, Zoological Artist 1840-1848: Unsettling Critical Depictions of John Gould’s ‘Laborious Assistant’ and ‘Devoted Wife’.” Hecate 39.1/2 (2013): 101-22,217.