The Galapagos Finches and John Gould

Galapagos finches at the Museum of Zoology
Galapagos finches ©University of Cambridge + Chris Green

Visitor Engagement Volunteer Michael Clegg writes:

Coming to the museum with a background in art history, there were a lot of Latin species names that I didn’t recognise.  But there was also mention of a once-celebrated Victorian whose name I did know, that of John Gould.

In the display case containing Darwin’s specimens, Gould is credited as the man who classified the Galapagos finches.  The information panel underlines that the finches did not make an appearance in On the Origin of Species and played a limited role in Darwin’s developing ideas.  While this is all true, of course, I can’t help feeling that Gould is worth a bit more of our time.

To start with, he was a remarkable self-made man.  The son of a gardener, he ended as an intimate of nobles, the unlikely route for this upward mobility being taxidermy.  At twenty-three he won a competition in ‘bird-stuffing’ to become the first ‘Curator & Preserver’ for the Zoological Society of London.  It was this position – and the skills in bird morphology and classification that he had learned ­– that led to him receiving specimens from the Beagle.  From taxidermy, Gould moved into illustration.  He published magnificent volumes of ornithological prints that he sold to wealthy subscribers, as Britain’s answer to the American, John James Audubon.  It was these prints that brought him to my attention studying art history.

Gould was also a bit of a trickster.  He drew a veil over his own role in creating the gorgeous drawings in his books, leaving the impression that he was an accomplished draftsman.  In reality, his drawing skills were modest.  The work of illustration was done instead by his wife, Elizabeth, or paid assistants, who included the young nonsense poet Edward Lear.  It was Elizabeth who illustrated the finches for the official Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle.

Gould appears in the Museum because of his association with Darwin.  Yet ironically, his work played an important role in nineteenth-century opposition to evolutionary theory.  His books illustrating the species of Hummingbirds, for example, were cited by those for whom nature’s sheer beauty seemed to preclude any explanation though a mechanical process, such as evolution.  Such arguments were themselves a prompt for Darwin to elaborate the idea of sexual selection.  Gould himself also took an anti-Darwinian position, though one contemporary rather meanly suggested that this was less to do with his own thoughts than a desire not to upset his aristocratic patrons.

For me, this collision of the world of science and aesthetics in the nineteenth century is fascinating.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure Gould gets much more of a shout in most art history than he does alongside the Galapagos finches, but for anyone interested there’s a very readable biography by Isabella Tree called The Bird Man.

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