The Family of Toucans: the Complete Plates
Not so much a book as a boxed set of reprints of the original lithographic imperial-folio plates, this work is a glorious celebration of Britain’s most important 19th century bird artist. During his long professional life, John Gould wrote 18 great works of ornithology, comprising 49 volumes. One of the earliest was a monograph of the world’s toucans, written when he was just 31 years old. In 1854 he reissued it with descriptions and new plates of 51 ‘species’ (at least 10 more than are now recognised), and it is these that appear in the present work.
Although Gould’s artwork fulfils the aesthetic expectations of another era, when there was an appetite for grandiose life-sized images of nature and when birds like toucans were seen as unattainably exotic rather than as creatures the reader might hope to see for themselves, nevertheless we can still appreciate their beauty. Toucans had first been illustrated in Europe in the mid-16th century, but nothing had ever been attempted on the comprehensive scale of Gould’s book.
Rather remarkably, the author’s field experience of toucans consisted only of encounters with museum skins and with the handful of live birds kept in European aviaries. Despite these disadvantages, Gould named no fewer than 11 species new to science, more than a quarter of the entire toucan group, reminding us of what an outstanding ornithologist he was, as well as an artist and entrepreneur. That glorious inhabitant of the Brazilian Amazon, known technically as Selenidera gouldii, still does him the ultimate honour and bears the name Gould’s Toucanet.
The box set includes a separate superb 9,000-word essay by Jonathan Elphick, who gives us a synoptic overview of both Gould’s career and of the toucan subfamily itself. Elphick also reminds us how cheap this new portfolio is compared with the original book. Published in 20 parts then rebound as a single volume, the second edition of Gould’s toucans sold only 213 copies, and one of those originals could now set you back a cool £100,000.
• The Family of Toucans: the Complete Plates by John Gould (Taschen, Cologne, 2011).
• 118 pages, 51 colour plates.
• ISBN 9783836505246. Hbk, £69.99.