Elizabeth Gould, “The Queen of All Naturalists”

Leah Tharpe
20 Oct 2022

Elizabeth Gould, “The Queen of All Naturalists”

My paper focuses on Elizabeth Gould (1804-1841), an important but largely overshadowed figure in nineteenth century ornithology. Elizabeth, in partnership with her husband John Gould, became a pioneering and productive artist and lithographer when the field was professionalizing but still open to self-taught amateurs. Before her early death, they published six illustrated bird books, she had drawn plates for the birds in Charles Darwin’s The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1838-1843), and the pair travelled to Australia for eighteen months of field work where Elizabeth not only drew preparatory drawings, she had another child.

However, her reputation has been almost entirely subsumed to John’s. For example, when one searches the National Gallery of Victoria’s website for “Elizabeth Gould,” the results are for John even though the lithograph in the collection is labelled “J & E Gould del.” and Elizabeth was widely acknowledged as the artist in the Goulds’ lifetime. Though Austrian ornithologist Johan Natterer considered her “a heroine and the queen of all Naturalists,” her presence in the archive has since largely been absorbed into Gould’s biography and production. Other biographers have approached Gould with distaste, as Isabella Tree does, considering him a harsh taskmaster who demanded unrelenting work from his wife. Allen McEvey wrote, “the plates, […] cannot in these senses be fairly attributed to anyone but [John] Gould,” showing how challenging it can be recenter on women artists and give them their due.

I propose a new approach, in which the Goulds’ teamwork afforded Elizabeth a tremendously exciting, international life experience where she made significant contributions to western knowledge, which is more than she could have expected as governess. Contemporary scholars, museums, and authors have begun to center on her, especially in Australia, where a trove of her letters emerged in 1938. Through the archive, we have glimpses into Elizabeth’s experience. My paper considers whether John and Elizabeth Gould can be untangled, whether they should, and how perhaps treating the two as an interwoven entity is adequate for study of their period and production.

It focuses on further excavating Elizabeth Gould and introducing an allegorical reading of the Birds of Australia, as very few scholars have interpreted the Goulds’ artwork through an art historical, let alone an imperial art historical, framework. Barring a glorious archival find, we won’t know the creative process, so untangling the Goulds is likely impossible. But their experiences, observations, and production as a unit can still inform study. Elizabeth’s ability to absorb knowledge of birds to make this information–the physical characteristics and emerging taxonomies–digestible and clear to the viewer deserves accolades. Ultimately, I propose to add Elizabeth Gould’s name to all records of the Birds of Australia and anything John Gould published or produced before her death in 1841.