Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867), “Little Egret Heron”
Prideaux John Selby (British, 1788-1867)
“Little Egret Heron”
Original watercolor for Plate 5 Illustrations of British Ornithology
Watercolor, gouache, grey and brown washes on paper
Signed lower left: PJSelby
London, ca. 1820
Paper size: 22 3/4 x 16 1/2 in
Frame size: 32 1/2 x 27 1/2 in
“If the birds mentioned in the bill of fare at the famous feast of Archbishop NEVILLE, in the reign of HENRY IV, under the name of Egrets or Egrittes, were of this species, it must have been extremely abundant at that period, to have admitted of a thousand being served up at a single entertainment. I am, however, much inclined to favour the opinion of Dr FLEMING, as advanced in his History of British Animals, and to think that some other bird was there signified, most probably, as he suggests, the Lapwing or Pewit (Vanellus cristatus), which also possesses a long occipital crest, and which always has been, and still continues to be, remarkably plentiful throughout Britain. For otherwise (as he says), under the supposition that the Ardea garzetta was the bird alluded to, it is very difficult to account for the silence of our early writers in regard to this species being native in Britain. WILLOUGHBY, in his description of the Lesser White Heron (which is without doubt the bird now under consideration), expressly states, that the specimen from which it was taken was obtained in Venice; and he never even alludes to this bird as inhabiting or visiting the British Islands. PENNANT is the only writer who adduces any evidence of the Egret having been killed in Britain ; and even that evidence is far from being conclusive, Rarest vi. as it only amounts to his having once received from Angle sea the feathers of a bird shot there, which he conjectured to be those of the Egret. Under these circumstances, its claim to rank as a British bird stands upon nearly the same ground as that of the preceding species (Ardea alba), or the Great White Heron. Its geographical distribution is confined to the Old World; but it is represented in America by a closely-allied species (with which by some authors it has been confounded), viz. Ardea Carolinensis of WILSON’S North American Ornithology (Ardea candidissima of WAGLER).
In Europe, it is sometimes found in Germany, where it is migratory; as also in France and Italy. It abounds in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland; and also occurs in Sicily and Sardinia. It inhabits the confines of Asia; and, in Africa, is met with in Nubia and Egypt.
In its modes of life, it resembles its congeners, and builds among the reeds of lakes and marshes, laying from four to Food, &c. six bluish-white eggs.
PLATE V. The body is entirely white. The occiput is crested, and has (when in perfect plumage) two or three General long narrow subulated feathers. The lower part of the neck is also adorned with long pendant feathers, slightly decomposed towards their tips. From the back, behind the shoulders, arises a course of long plumes, each composed of a strong elastic shaft, with long, decomposed hair-like silky webs, which move with the slightest breath of air. The ends of these feathers curl upwards, and form (as in Ardea alba) a beautiful train, which the bird, when suddenly disturbed, generally erects. The bill is black, as is also the naked part of the tibia, and upper half of the tarsus; the remainder of the tarsus and the toes being yellowish-green. The lores are greenish-yellow.
The young are without the long subulated feathers of the occiput, and lower part of the neck, as well as of those which form the train of the mature bird; and the lower mandible is white for more than half its length from the base.
In maturity, this bird measures from one foot ten inches to two feet long. The bill, measuring from the corners of the mouth, is rather more than three inches; the tarsi four inches; and the naked part of the tibia about two inches and a quarter in length.”
Considered by many as the English equivalent of Audubon, Prideaux John Selby created some of the most memorable bird images of the nineteenth-century. His contributions to British ornithology were rivaled only by those of John Gould. Yet, his pictures were larger and less purely scientific, exhibiting Selby’s distinctive and charming style. A sense of Selby’s enthusiasm for his subjects is nowhere more palpable than in his engaging original watercolors. Selby executed these delightful images as preparatory models for his landmark printed series, Illustrations of British Ornithology. While the artist’s engraved work is highly desirable to collectors, Selby’s original watercolors rarely become available. This selection of watercolors, moreover, comprises several of his masterpieces. The distinctive birds are depicted in profile, their forms delineated by softly modulated tones of black and gray wash. The setting, if present, is lightly but skillfully painted to not distract from the birds themselves. The skill and delicacy of Selby’s touch, his keen powers of observation, and his artistic sensitivity are conveyed here in a way they are not in his printed work. Several of the drawings are by Selby’s brother-in-law, Robert Mitford, but signed in Selby’s hand.
Born in Northumberland and educated at University College, Oxford, Selby was a landowner and squire with ample time to devote to studying the plant and animal life at his country estate, Twizell House. As a boy, he had studied the habits of local birds, drawn them, and learned how to preserve and set up specimens. Later, Selby became an active member of several British natural history societies and contributed many articles to their journals. Although Selby was interested in botany and produced a History of British Trees in 1842, he is best known for his Illustrations of British Ornithology. Selby’s work was the first attempt to create a set of life-sized illustrations of British birds, remarkable for their naturalism and the delicacy of their execution. The British Ornithology was issued in nineteen parts over thirteen years; the book consisted of 89 plates of land birds and 129 plates of water birds, engraved by William Lizars of Edinburgh, the printer who engraved the first ten plates of Audubon’s Birds of America.
With their rich detail and tonal range, these exquisite watercolors are beautiful works by one of the foremost British bird painters. Furthermore, they represent a singular opportunity to obtain a unique piece of the highest quality by this luminary artist, from an era in British ornithological art that remains unparalleled.