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KU Libraries Digitize Bird Illustrator's Books

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

LAWRENCE — University of Kansas Libraries has completed digitization of one of the world’s greatest collections of bird illustrations. The 19th century books of John Gould feature images of birds from around the world and have long appealed to everyone from Charles Darwin to amateur bird watchers.

Gould’s work came to KU in the early 1950s and became one of the original collections of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. As well as his published books, the Gould collection includes more than 2,000 manuscript drawings, watercolors and preliminary art for the books. The content of the books and manuscripts, about 6,000 images total, are now available online for anyone to access at the KU Libraries website. The digitization project was partially supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Gould produced approximately 47 large-format 22-by-14-inch volumes of bird illustrations and scientific descriptions between 1830 and 1881. A skilled taxidermist with the ability to sketch birds, he was named curator and preserver of bird collections at the Museum of the Zoological Society of London at the age of 24. In 1829 he married Elizabeth Coxen, herself a talented amateur artist. Together they began producing books about birds and raising a family. The first, “A Century of Birds Hitherto Unfigured from the Himalaya Mountains,” was published in 1830. Though Elizabeth died in 1841, John continued his work until his death in 1881.

The volumes were both scientifically informative and beautiful works of art. Gould often began the process of illustration with rough field sketches that he passed on to his wife and other artist employees. They added color and detail. Many of their drawings and watercolors in KU’s collection bear Gould’s handwritten notes indicating necessary changes to the proportions, positions and coloring of the birds.

“At the time lithographic color printing was still in its infancy,” said Karen Severud Cook, special collections librarian at KU. “So all of his published illustrations were colored by hand.”

The expense of the deluxe volumes limited their affordability to wealthy collectors and well-funded museums and libraries. Eventually reduced copies of the images were published in smaller volumes that were more affordable for the wider public.

In his career Gould illustrated birds of the Himalayas, Australia, New Guinea, Asia, Europe and Great Britain and also published volumes about various families of birds. His only work on North American birds was about partridges, but following his death his work became more popular with Americans. Gould first saw hummingbirds, not native to England, in America and his six volumes about hummingbirds influenced the "hummingbird craze" in mid-19th century England.

Gould’s work was also widely known and respected by scientists of the time. After returning from the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle in 1836 Charles Darwin presented 450 bird specimens to the Museum of the London Zoological Society.

“So who helped him to describe those birds? It was John Gould,” Cook said. “Darwin published five volumes on his findings from the H.M.S. Beagle and Gould authored the volume about birds, including the finches from the Galapagos Islands.”

The Gould collection made its way to KU thanks to a dedicated collector with Kansas connections. Ralph Ellis was born in 1908 and showed an interest in birds since childhood. That interest grew into an obsession to collect books on birds as he grew older. An aspiring ornithologist, Ellis collected more than 65,000 books and items about birds, including the original works of John Gould, which he acquired in England in 1936 and 1937.

Ellis knew E. Raymond Hall, who became director of KU’s Natural History Museum in 1944. Hall arranged for a meeting between Ellis and then-chancellor Franklin Murphy. Murphy was sufficiently impressed by the collection and saw the value in housing Gould’s work, even though there was not a library dedicated to such works at the university at the time. In 1945 Ellis was moving his collection, which filled two railway freight cars, cross-country when accepted Hall’s invitation to come to Lawrence. Six months later Ellis died of pneumonia and bequeathed the collection to KU.

Since then, scientists, educators, students, artists and bird enthusiasts have come to see and study the John Gould Ornithological Collection.

“There isn’t one specific group these images appeal to the most,” Cook said. “We’ve had ornithologists, art classes and even people on their way to birding events who have stopped here to see the originals.”

However, other potential visitors haven’t been able to travel to Kansas to see the works in person or have not even known of their existence.

The NEH grant has allowed KU Libraries to digitize, catalog and preserve the thousands of images and make them available to anyone with an Internet connection. Available online, the collection can be searched by volume, by artist who worked with Gould, by species and more. Viewers can also view the images in digital book form and zoom in to enhance the detail and study the composition of the works.

KU Libraries will host an event from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 11, at Spencer Research Library to introduce the digitized collection to the public and share information on the creation of the original images as well as their digitization and preservation.

“This was one of the foundation collections of Spencer Research Library and is a wealth of information and excellent images,” Cook said. “It really needed the digital age, though, to complete its processing and present it in digital format, allowing anyone who wishes to view it online.”

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Museum Events

Art Cart: Painted Fans
Saturday, January 20 | 1 p.m.-4 p.m.
Spencer Museum of Art, Sam and Connie Perkins Central Court, 317
1301 Mississippi St.
The Art Cart is a drop-in activity station where children and grown-ups enjoy hands-on art projects together, taking inspiration from original works of art. After traveling the world, Sallie Casey Thayer donated her collection of objects to KU to form what is now the Spencer Museum of Art. Learn about Mrs. Thayer and create a painted folding fan to start your own collection.

Slow Art Sunday: Steel Wool Peignoir
Sunday, January 21 | 2 p.m.-3 p.m.
Spencer Museum of Art, Kemper Family Foundations Balcony, 408
1301 Mississippi St.
Slow down at the Spencer and spend time getting to know one great work of art. Slow Art Sunday features one work for visitors to contemplate and converse about with Museum staff. In January, get to know Steel Wool Peignoir by Mimi Smith.

Science on Tap: The Cambrian: More than just Trilobites
Wednesday, January 24 | 7:30 p.m.
Free State Brewing Co., 636 Massachusetts St.
The Cambrian is a time in Earth’s history when many modern animal relatives make their first appearance. It is also a time when many bizarre animals without modern relatives appear in the fossil record. At this Science on Tap, Dr. Julien Kimmig will talk about the diversity of animals during this amazing period and what it can teach us about the future of life on earth. 

Career Close-ups: Developing a Career in the Museum World
Friday, January 26 | 2 p.m.-4 p.m.
Spencer Museum of Art, Auditorium 309
1301 Mississippi St.
Undergraduate and graduate students are invited to explore how any major can lead to a career in a cultural organization. A panel of museum professionals will share their experiences, followed by a networking reception and behind-the-scenes tours of KU’s museums. This year’s panelists include: Dina Bennett (Mulvane Art Museum, Washburn University), Glenn North (Black Archives of Mid-America), and Adrianne Russell (Cabinet of Curiosities). Advance registration is required at www.spencerart.ku.edu/career-closeups. Please register by January 24. Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/476618689399321/
Sponsored by the Spencer Museum of Art, KU Natural History Museum, University Career Center, and the Museum Studies Program.

Final Friday: Community and Culture Closing Celebration
Friday, January 26 | 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m.
Watkins Museum of History, 1047 Massachusetts St.
The Watkins, in partnership with the Max Kade Center and the Lawrence Opera Theatre, present an evening of 19th-century German-American music and cuisine.

Discovery Day: Celebrating Kansas
Sunday, January 28 | 1 p.m.-3 p.m.
KU Natural History Museum, 1345 Jayhawk Blvd.
In honor of Kansas Day, join us for hands-on activities that are all about Kansas wildlife, plants and fossils. 

Kenneth A. Spencer Lecture: An Evening with Eve L. Ewing: Poetry in Context
Wednesday, January 31 | 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St.
Eve L. Ewing is a sociologist, poet, essayist, artist, and educator whose research focuses on racism, social inequality, urban policy, and the impact of these forces on American public schools and the lives of young people. Dr. Ewing earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University and is recognized as a leader and social influencer, especially in conversations involving academia, writing, black women, and the intersection of politics and popular culture. Sponsored by The Commons.

University in the Art Museum for Graduate Students
Thursday, February 1 | 3 p.m.-4:30 p.m.
Spencer Museum of Art, 1301 Mississippi St.
University in the Art Museum introduces graduate students to opportunities for object-based teaching, learning, and research through collaborative partnerships with the Spencer Museum of Art. This workshop includes discussions led by graduate students in the departments of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; Geography; and Atmospheric Science. Advance registration is required by Monday, January 29. Register online at https://spencerart.ku.edu/uam.

Extraordinary Animals: Awesome Adaptations
Sunday, February 4 | 1 p.m.-3 p.m.
KU Natural History Museum, 1345 Jayhawk Blvd.
At this new monthly animal event, parents and children are invited to learn about animals of Kansas. Museum Animal Specialist Ashley Welton will offer presentations about animal adaptations using touchable specimens from the museums collections at 1:15, 1:45 and 2:15 pm. 

FeBREWary at the Watkins
Thursday, February 15 | 6 p.m.-9 p.m.
Watkins Museum of History, 1047 Massachusetts St.
The Watkins, in partnership with Lawrence Beer Co., presents an evening of beer, food, and knowledge! Enjoy beer and a fascinating talk on brewing provided by Lawrence Beer Co., plus food from local restaurants and an informal museum tour. Tickets are $15 for DCHS members, $20 for non-members. You may sign up online or contact the museum at 785-841-4109. We recommend buying in advance. Ages 21 and over only, please. More information and registration.

Winter Table: An Evening of Herpetology
Wednesday, February 28 | 6:30 p.m.
KU Natural History Museum, 1345 Jayhawk Blvd.
A celebration of more than 100 years of KU herpetology research programs and the careers of Linda Trueb and Bill Duellman. Explore the Natural History Museum's reptile and amphibian collections and enjoy appetizers and drinks. Dine in the Panorama Gallery with KU herpetology scientists and students conducting reptile and amphibian research across the globe. 

6:30 pm: appetizers, drinks and science salon
7:00 pm: dinner and program
$50 per person 

Reserve your space now at the 2018 Winter Table by ordering tickets online. Tickets are $50 per person. You may also call 785-864-4450 to purchase by phone or you may purchase tickets at the museum lobby during business hours. Questions? Contact biodiversity@ku.edu or 785-864-4450.

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