AN ORIGINAL WATERCOLOUR BY SELBY FROM ‘OUR ENGLISH EQUIVALENT OF AUDUBON’S FAMOUS WORK’

‘Widgeon F[emale]’ [titled thus on engraved plate].

[c. 1818-1834].

Watercolour drawing (300 x 358mm); watercolour, gouache, grey and brown washes, and pen-and-ink over pencil underdrawing, signed in pencil at the lower left corner (‘P J Selby’); laid down onto a larger sheet [?of an album]; framed and glazed; very lightly rubbed and marked, mount with very light spotting, generally very good; provenance: H. Bradley Martin (1906-1988, book collector; his sale, Sotheby’s New York, 8 June 1989, lot 404, with printed lot sticker on verso of mount and manuscript lot sticker on backboard of frame).

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‘Widgeon F[emale]’ [titled thus on engraved plate].

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A fine watercolour by the distinguished British naturalist Prideaux John Selby (1788-1867) that was prepared for his magnum opus Illustrations of British Ornithology (Edinburgh and London: 1819-1834).

Selby spent a few terms as a gentleman commoner at University College, Oxford before marrying one of Bertram Mitford’s daughters and inheriting Twizell House, which became a centre for friends and family, as well as ‘a widening circle of naturalists. Had the Selbys kept a visitors’ book, it would have contained the names of the most eminent naturalists of the day: John Gould, Dr. Robert K. Greville, Dr. Robert Graham, John James Audubon, Leonard Jenyns, William Yarrell, and H.E. Strickland, to name but a few’ (Christine E. Jackson, ‘Prideaux John Selby’, The Library of H. Bradley Martin, part III (New York: Sotheby’s, 8 June 1989, p. [13]). Selby also counted men of science among his friends, including Sir William Jardine of Jardine Hall in Dumfriesshire, Scotland’s foremost ornithologist and ichthyologist of the nineteenth century, whose specimens supplemented Selby’s as models for his drawings. Selby’s knowledge of ornithology, was extensive, and his artistic skills also developed over time: ‘Selby exhibited several paintings at the Royal Scottish Academy, of which he was elected an honorary member in 1827. He became a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1826 and intermittently attended meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science from 1833 onwards. In 1839 the University of Durham conferred on him the honorary degree of master of arts’ (ODNB). Notably, both Selby and Jardine took instruction from Audubon in drawing birds for their jointly prepared Illustrations of Ornithology (1836-1841).

Illustrations of British Ornithology was completed in four volumes, comprising two plate volumes (Edinburgh and London: Archibald Constable and Hurst, Robinson & Co., 1819-1834) and two text volumes (Edinburgh and London: W.H. Lizars, Longman et al., 1825-1833). Selby’s brother-in-law, Admiral Robert Mitford, had been taught to etch by Thomas Bewick in Newcastle in 1819, and assisted Selby in etching the plates of Selby’s watercolours (Mitford would also provide oil paintings of supplementary birds to the Illustrations, while William Jardine created watercolour paintings in rushed periods; the Great Auk was drawn by Edward Lear). The copperplates were then sent to Lizars in Edinburgh for printing, Selby approved the proofs, Lizars added final details to the copper plate if necessary, and the plates were then printed (and coloured, if they were intended for a subscriber to a coloured copy). The resulting work is remarkable both for its beauty and scientific value; as Mullens and Swann state, Selby’s ‘greatest work will ever be deemed his celebrated Illustrations of British Ornithology [...], our English equivalent of Audubon’s famous work’ (p. 518).

Contemporary reviewers also appreciated the importance and beauty of the work, and, as Jackson comments, ‘[i]f the reviewers were enthusiastic about the printed etchings […], they would have been even more impressed by the watercolors on which they were based’ (p. [23]). This watercolour was drawn for the plate of the ‘Common Wigeon’ (volume II, plate 52), which showed both the male (no. 1) and the female (no. 2) of the species. The drawing was based on Selby’s own observations (most likely using a specimen collected and set up by Selby with the help of his butler, Richard Moffitt), and was engraved with the addition of a small piece of land beneath its feet. In the text volume, Selby describes the appearance, movements, and activities of wigeons, and their breeding patterns, stating that ‘[t]he northern countries of Europe, even to very high latitudes, as well as those of Northern Asia, are the native regions of these birds; and though Temminck mentions them as sometimes breeding in Holland, a parallel as low as our own, I am not aware that they have ever been ascertained to do so in Britain’ (II, p. 325). In 1834, however, Selby and Sir William Jardine were the first to find wigeons breeding in Britain, when they discovered a nest in Sutherland, as Selby reported in ‘On the Quadrupeds and Birds inhabiting the County of Sutherland observed there during an Excursion in the Summer of 1834’ (Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal 20 (1835-1836), pp. 156-161, at p. 157).

This drawing was previously in the celebrated collection of H. Bradley Martin, one of America’s ‘[d]istinguished private collectors’ (Dictionary of American Antiquarian Bookdealers, 1998, p. 125), which was sold in a series of nine auctions at Sotheby’s in New York and Monaco, in 1989 and 1990. Martin had acquired all of the surviving watercolours for Selby’s work, which were originally mounted on larger sheets, and then guarded for binding up in four volumes, and one of the catalogues was dedicated to Selby’s watercolours.

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