Neither G. T. Bettany's entry for John Gould (1804–1881) in the Dictionary of National Biography (1908), nor Gordon Sauer's entry for him in the current online edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, gives a fair idea of the ornithologist connections with some of the giants of the age, most notably Charles Darwin and John Ruskin. Sauer does at least explain how Gould's work helped the former:

Charles Darwin returned from his epic voyage on HMS Beagle in the autumn of 1836. Darwin selected several scientists to describe his collected specimens, and Gould was presented with Darwin's birds. In January 1837 Gould pronounced a group of twelve birds from the Galápagos Islands, which Darwin had thought to be "blackbirds, warblers, wrens and finches," as all one family of finches, with variations in their beaks and size. This was the crucial piece of evidence that enabled Darwin to come to his theory of island speciation. The "bird" volume of Darwin's Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle was contributed by Gould (1838–41, 50 pl.).

However, Gould was not in fact a supporter of Darwin, or at least, because of his admirers and subscribers in the establishment, he did not wish to appear so: "Audubon had early noted that Gould's connections at the gentlemanly Zoological Society and his correspondence with 'the Scientific Gentry' gave him great advantages.... The Cambridge ornithologist Alfred Newton, who knew Gould well, declared to his brother in 1864 that Gould “does not care a rap whether [Darwin's theory] is true or not — but he is dreadfully afraid that by prematurely espousing it he might lose some subscribers" (Smith 96). Perhaps with that in mind, in the introduction that Gould added to his Monograph of the Trochilidae, or Family of Humming-birds in 1861, and then soon afterwards in his popular Birds of Great Britain (1862–73), Gould presented a comfortingly traditional picture of bird-life that contrasted with the only recently published Origin of Species. His book of British birds, for example, afforded

a reassuring look at a natural world that is not in flux but fixed, not unstable but stable, not wantonly violent but purposefully designed.... The Cambridge ornithologist Most of all, Gould’s British birds are presented in family portraits, with nurturing parents, especially females, caring for their young. This approach, virtually unprecedented in the annals of ornithological illustration, was deliberate and distinctive, a leitmotif that offered a very different view of the natural world from the one painted by Darwin in his accounts of natural and sexual selection. [Smith 96]

This is true: even the ornithologist Francis Orpen Morris (1810-1893), a clergyman and vehement anti-Darwinist, only occasionally depicted birds in this way.

Among Gould's many subscribers was John Ruskin who was quick to find support in Gould's work for his own anti-evolutionary thinking. He drew on it heavily in the three Oxford lectures on birds that he published as Love's Meinie from 1873-1881, and urged his audience / readers to focus on the living creatures in their midst, not on the "filthy heraldries which record the relation of humanity to the ascidian and the crocodile" (61). As Jonathan Smith says, Gould's birds "migrated surprisingly widely into Victorian culture" (94).

You may use the images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the source (see bibliography), and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. [Click on all the images to enlarge them, and for more information about them.]

Related Material


Bettany, G. T. Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. VIII, Glover - Harriot. Ed. Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. New York: Macmillan / London: Smith, Elder, 1908: 287-88. Internet Archive, contributed by the University of California Libraries. Web. 4 April 2019.

Ruskin, John. Love's Meinie: Three lectures on Greek and English Birds. Project Gutenberg. Web. 4 April 2019.

Sauer, Gordon C. "Gould, John (1804–1881), ornithologist and publisher." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 4 April 2019.

Smith, Jonathan. Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture. Pbk ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. See Ch. 3, "Darwin's Birds," on Gould, Darwin and Ruskin.

Created 3 April 2019; last modified 8 September 2023