Artefact of the month - August 2007
Calliphlox amethystina, the amethyst hummingbird in Volume III of A monograph of the Trochilidae, or family of humming-birds, by John Gould. London : published by the author, 1849-61 in five volumes plus supplement.
The supplementary volume was started in 1880 and completed in 1881 after Gould’s death by Richard Bowdler Sharpe, ZSL’s former Librarian.
These large, folio books are some of John Gould’s greatest ornithological works.
No one did more to bring tropical birds to the notice of the British public than John Gould (1804-1881). As well as being taxidermist and bird curator of ZSL’s museum, Gould was publishing privately, large books containing magnificent hand-coloured illustrations of exotic bird families toucans and trogons which culminated in the much larger 6-volume work on hummingbirds.
Hummingbirds were close to John Gould’s heart and in 1857 he saw his first live hummingbirds when he journeyed to America 'With what delight did I examine its tiny body, and feast my eyes on its glittering plumage'. Gould returned from this short trip to America with two live hummingbirds but sadly, despite his best efforts to keep them alive on a special diet of nectar and insects, they did not survive the voyage.
Gould and his artist, H.C. Richter, figured all the then known species on 418 plates in A monograph of the Trochilidae. The raw material for the hummingbird figures came from the large collection of birdskins Gould acquired which far surpassed that of the British Museum. With the hummingbird book, Gould faced many challenges including developing techniques for reproducing the birds’ iridescent colours and researching the flora of their habitats.
The plates in the original folios were hand coloured, drawn and lithographed by Gould, H.C. Richter and William Hart.
The first live hummingbird held at London Zoo was a Sparkling Violet-ear which arrived in 1905 and was the first to be publicly shown in Europe.
Today, ZSL is undergoing an exciting redevelopment of the Tropical Bird House to bring back hummingbirds and other exotic birds to London Zoo.
A display about Gould’s hummingbird folios and hummingbird house can be seen in ZSL’s Main Office Reception throughout the Summer, weekdays 9.30 am to 5.30 pm. Please bring your ZSL membership card or proof of address if you plan to visit this display.
John Gould’s Hummingbird House
Illustrated London News, 12 June 1852
In the year of the Great Exhibition, 1851, John Gould lent ZSL his collection of mounted hummingbirds and these were exhibited in a special building near the then Lion House. The birds were shown in specially designed plate-glass, octagonal cases with canopies designed to capture the birds irridescent colours. The glittering display on 1,500 hummingbirds was very popular, it attracted over 75,000 visitors and was so successful it was lent again in 1852.