In 1830, when English taxidermist John Gould was keen to publish his first volume of bird species, his wife Elizabeth asked him who would create the illustrations. She knew her unartistic husband wouldn’t be up to the task. According to an 1893 biography of John, he replied, “Why you, of course.” Within the next decade, Elizabeth’s artistic talent would help cement the Gould name in ornithological history. But unlike her husband, her name would be largely forgotten.
“We know that John Gould himself was not a particularly talented artist,” says Robert Peck, a curator and historian at Drexel University. John could produce outlines and rough sketches, but Elizabeth created the final illustrations that appeared in their collections.
Born in England to a middle-class military family, Elizabeth likely studied drawing, painting, and botany, which was customary for young Victorian women. By the time she met John in her early twenties, she was working as a governess and he was a curator and taxidermist at the Zoological Society of London. In a surviving letter to her mother, Elizabeth wrote that she found the work dull and lonely. Elizabeth and John married in 1829, and the couple wasted no time in employing her artistic talents: A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains was published just two years later.
The collection, which contains over one hundred lithograph illustrations of rare Indian birds, was an immediate success. “They were the first illustrations of a number of species from the Himalayas that the Western world had ever seen before,” Peck says. The Goulds soon began work on the second collection, The Birds of Europe.
The projects tested Elizabeth’s limited training. Lithography is an elaborate skill involving carefully sketching, chemically etching, and coloring plates. Elizabeth’s artistic training provided a foundation, and as she threw herself into her work, her techniques developed rapidly. She took lessons from Edward Lear, an English artist and writer. Though he was best known for popularizing the limerick, Lear was a skilled artist and worked closely with the Goulds on their first two publications.
Most of Elizabeth’s early illustrations were based on specimen skins in the collection John curated at the Zoological Society. Without the vibrant colors and natural poses of live birds to work from, the species in her earlier work appear unnaturally stiff or drab. When Elizabeth undertook the lithographs for The Birds of Europe in 1832, she was able to paint from live birds and began incorporating local botany and landscapes, which further elevated her work. Elizabeth “was in there with the top artists and the top scientists of that age,” says Roger Lederer, ornithologist and author of The Art of the Bird. “She was on the cusp of the scientific illustration of birds.”
When Charles Darwin returned from the Galapagos Islands in 1837, he tasked John Gould with identifying the puzzling bird species he’d collected. The Goulds’ work was published in the multi-part book Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, edited by Darwin. Elizabeth crafted lithographs for the book, including ones of the finches that would contribute to Darwin’s theory of evolution. “Elizabeth, with her husband, stood on the edge of Darwin's discoveries of evolution,” Peck says.
While her artistic skill was notable, Elizabeth wasn’t the only female artist capturing the natural world. Women were commonly employed as colorists for lithograph plates, says Peck, but their names were rarely documented. Though historians aren't sure if Elizabeth fought for credit, almost all of her work features her name. In the Goulds’ collection of Himalayan bird species, the art credit is solely Elizabeth’s: “Drawn from Nature and on Stone by E. Gould.” In their following publications, her illustrations were signed “J. and E. Gould,” sharing credit for the design and lithography with her husband, even when John had little or no role in creating the lithograph. John was involved in overseeing the creation and design of the plates, says Adria Castellucci, a research librarian at The Australian Museum, “but at the end of the day, it was Elizabeth's hands who drew those illustrations, who created those original lithographs.”
In 1838, the Gould’s embarked on their most ambitious project yet: a collection on the birds of Australia. Elizabeth and John knew they’d need to visit the country to document the species and decided to bring their seven-year-old son, leaving the three youngest children in the care of relatives in England. Their journey, which may have been inspired by Elizabeth’s two brothers living in New South Wales in southeastern Australia, would take them just more than two years.
In the 1930s, the discovery of a series of letters shed light on Elizabeth’s time in Australia. In addition to giving birth for a seventh time to their fifth surviving child, she worked around the clock producing hundreds of sketches, many of which included species never before been documented by western ornithologists. Some of her illustrations were created from live birds, while others were from skins captured by her husband. John's specimen collecting was so overzealous that Elizabeth remarked that he “has already shown himself a great enemy of the feathered tribe.”
The letters reveal the tension between Elizabeth’s devotion to her work and being separated from her children. “Her letters are absolutely heartbreaking,” says Castellucci “because, in hindsight, we know that once she did return to England, she had barely a year with them.” In August 1841, a year after returning to England, Elizabeth died of puerperal fever after giving birth to their eighth child. She was just 37 years old, but in the previous 11 years, she completed an estimated 650 lithographs that would help sustain her husband’s legacy.
“There's this idea of Elizabeth as having been a martyr to her husband's work,” Castellucci says. Some have even speculated Elizabeth’s premature death was a result of overworking. Castellucci, however, doesn't see that as the case. “I think it's people projecting what they think is that romantic tragic story onto something that's actually in a lot of ways more tragic in its mundanity—that a childbearing woman in the 19th century died of a treatable illness.”
Eight years after her death, John Gould published The Birds of Australia, including the 84 plates Elizabeth finished before her death. In it, he dedicates the colorful Gouldian Finch in her honor and he laments that she couldn’t complete the collection:
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…
Though he quickly found new artists to illustrate his books, John was devasted by the loss of his partner and never remarried. Over the next four decades he published new collections and continued to build his reputation while Elizabeth’s legacy was eclipsed by his.
“He did respect his wife and honor her as being a huge part of his work,” Castellucci says. “The painful question is, how many women do we not know about who were involved in scientific illustration and natural history because they were assisting the men in their lives who then didn't give them any credit?”
This story is part of an ongoing series that will highlight trailblazers in birding, conservation, and environmental history whose contributions were overlooked or underrecognized because of their identities or backgrounds. We welcome readers to submit suggestions or pitches future profiles. Please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org, and put "History Series" in the subject line.