Her work, his fame

Letters from the library

#20. Her work, his fame



One of the most interesting items held in the special collections of the CDF Library is a folder ―looking luxurious enough to intimidate me, I must confess― containing a series of the famous "Gould prints". Specifically, a set of six pieces on Galapagos birds.

John Gould was a famous British ornithologist. Although he began his career as a botanist, he became an expert taxidermist, which led him to specialize in birds and end up as a curator and a taxonomist at the Zoological Society of London. This, in turn, allowed him to have privileged access to the materials that the naturalists of the time deposited in the institution. Among them, there were those who arrived in Britain in 1836 aboard the H.M.S. Beagle after his second circumnavigation voyage.

That means that Gould worked with a part of the specimens collected by the naturalist on board that ship, who was none other than Charles Darwin.

Here I will open a huge parenthesis to emphasize that Darwin was not always the controversial author or scientific innovator that he ended up becoming (at least in the eyes of those who respect his theory of evolution). When he embarked on the Beagle he was a young man fairly inexperienced in academic and scientific matters, had little previous field activity under his belt, and had never traveled by ship ― which means that he had never left the his homeland. The British faced worlds totally new for him on the other side of the planet, and had a job in which he did not have much practice (and in which he made mistakes...). To his credit, it can be said that he did it armed with an insatiable curiosity, a fine sense of observation, and a lot of patience. His aptitudes ended up compensating, in a way, for his shortcomings; the rest is history.

The point is that, on his return to Britain, Darwin handed over the biological collections assembled along his journey to a group of expert taxonomists, including John Gould. The latter was naturally in charge of studying the birds, and was the first to realize that the Galapagoan finches he received may not be different varieties, but different species. The same thing happened with the islands' mockingbirds. Unfortunately, it was impossible to corroborate that hypothesis in the first place because Darwin had not correctly labeled many of the samples collected in Galapagos. Finally, after getting additional information from other members of the Beagle crew, Gould's comment became one of the many triggers for the theory of evolution. The one that, some time later, would make the scientific (and religious) meetings of half the world burn with scandal and anger.

The results of all those zoological identifications were put together in a 19-volume series titled (unimaginatively, if you ask me) The Zoology of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle. The work was edited and coordinated by Darwin himself, but it was written and illustrated by those responsible for the taxonomic work. It was divided into several parts, according to its theme, and, depending on the printer, it was bound and sold in 3 or 5 volumes. It had large-format pages, printed on excellent quality paper and accompanied by hand-colored lithographs.

[Currently, complete and undamaged collections of The Zoology… are hunted down by the world's leading auction houses. The starting price can be as high as $20,000. Fortunately, there are many libraries that have copies for consultation by researchers and authorized users. And perfectly digitized copies already exist, accessible to the rest of us, common mortals.]

The third part of the work was devoted to birds. It was published between 1838 and 1841, as its parts came out, and was produced by Gould.

Probably one of the most valuable aspects of The Zoology… are the illustrations. The lithographs. Lithography is a printing process that, at the time, represented a huge advance. Until its popularization, people worked, in general, with engravings. The effort involved in preparing one of those images was huge, and was usually left to a specialized operator, and not the illustrator himself. Lithography allowed the draftsman to trace his work himself, first on a stone plate (hence the name of the technique) and later on a metallic one. This plate was treated with certain chemicals that left the parts covered by pencil in relief, and allowed the drawing to be printed massively. Coloring was a separate issue: although sometime between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ways of painting illustrations with lithographic plates were devised, at first it had to be done by hand.

Now I want you to think about a print run of 500 books. Imagine having to paint all the illustrations (let's say about 50) by hand. One by one. All the same.

This infernally arduous work makes the original lithographs highly appreciated... and easily identifiable: the coloring is irregular, the paper has particular markings that can be seen with a magnifying glass (and even with the naked eye), and they generally bear a serial number and the author's signature on the back, given its uniqueness.

[Those from The Zoology… didn't have them, probably because they were part of a book.]

The illustrations for virtually all of Gould's work, including those of the Beagle's birds (and, within them, those of the Galapagos species), were produced by his wife, Elizabeth Coxen.

Coxen was an outstanding artist, whose name, perpetuating an unfortunately widespread problem, did not always appear in mentions of authorship of her work. According to some texts of the time, the woman seems to have always been in the shadow of a husband who took great advantage of her. In fact, we continue to refer to the engravings as "Gould's" ― which combines a certain unawareness of Elizabeth's existence with the general habit of dropping the maiden name in the Anglo-Saxon tradition.

As much as the discourse of the invisibility of women in science (and in everything else) has been repeated, I firmly believe that it is worth continuing to write about it. And recovering, when possible, necessary and pertinent, the voices of all those who remained under the mantle (or the surname) of another person.


Returning to our series of "Gould prints" (or, better, "Coxen's"), they turn out to be plates torn from some most unfortunate third part of The Zoology... which, in being so cruelly deprived of its images, lost all its market price ― and a significant part of its historical and academic importance.

Contrary to what one might think, the sheets thus obtained do not have a great value. As I said, they are neither numbered nor signed, and having been produced so quickly and massively, they lack many of the imperfections and details that would make them unique and therefore valuable.

And the fact that they've been ripped out of a book doesn't help much. On the contrary...

For us, however, they have a symbolic value. And an anecdotal one, if you will. For our portfolio of prints was donated to the CDF in 2009 by the Charles Darwin Trust, and was hand-delivered by none other than the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, who visited the Charles Darwin Research Station in March of that year.

Charles, Prince of Wales. The current British king. And Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. The current queen-consort.

  Keywords: History of Galapagos | History of science
  Subject categories: Artwork | Drawings | Illustrations | Women
  Time framework: 1838


Text & picture: (edgardo.civallero@fcdarwin.org.ec)
Publication date: 1 October 2020
Last update: 1 November 2022