arts and design

Ban imposed on overseas sale of John Gould’s landmark ornithological studies

The UK government has put a temporary ban on a collection of “exquisite” works by the celebrated 19th-century ornithologist John Gould from leaving the country, in an attempt to save them for the nation.

Gould is best known for The Birds of Australia, a comprehensive, seven-volume account of the country’s birds he put together between 1840 and 1848. His observations of Charles Darwin’s Galapagos finches played a part in the development of Darwin’s thinking towards his theory of evolution.

The bar has been applied to two of his albums, titled Gould’s Original Drawings Vols I and II, which are valued at £1,287,500 and contain 129 drawings and watercolours by Gould, along with other works including illustrations by his wife Elizabeth.

It is believed the two albums were originally sent to Edward Smith-Stanley, the 13th Earl of Derby by Gould’s clerk around 1843 and they have remained in Smith-Stanley’s family ever since. Smith-Stanley was an enthusiastic naturalist who owned several of Gould’s works. Gould even informally dubbed a species of rosella “The Earl of Derby’s Parakeet” in The Birds of Australia.

Culture minister Caroline Dinenage took the decision on the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, which deemed Gould to be “one of the most significant natural history artists of the Victorian age”. It would be “a misfortune” if the drawings were to leave the UK, said the committee, because they are “of outstanding significance for the study of the history and study of natural history art”.

“These exquisite drawings provide an important insight into the work of one of our most significant ornithologists, helping us to better understand 19th-century study of natural history,” said Dinenage. “I sincerely hope that these beautiful works can be saved for the nation so they may continue to inform our knowledge and understanding of John Gould’s brilliant work.”

Cartography expert Peter Barber, a member of the reviewing committee, said the drawings were “perhaps most significant as being amongst the earliest accurate western depictions of non-European birds, some now extinct”.

“They should be retained in this country so that they can be researched not only from an artistic and bibliographical perspective but above all in the context of Gould’s correspondence and the specimens, also gathered by John Gould, held by British institutions,” he added.

The bar on the drawings leaving the country will last until 24 September, but could be extended into January 2022 if a “serious intention to raise funds” to purchase them is made by a UK gallery or institution.


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